PAN: The Performing Artists Network
Mark Badger sets his baud rate for the heart of the sun and goes 'on-line' to America to interview Perry Leopold, founder of PAN - a unique communications network for hi-tech musicians.
Mark Badger goes on-line to America to interview Perry Leopold, the founder of PAN, a special communications network for musicians.
Many of you will no doubt have read Richard Elen's highly informative articles about going 'on-line' in the January and February '87 issues of Sound On Sound. I felt that they warranted a follow-up article on one of the subjects of his discourse, PAN - or to give it its full title - the Performing Artists Network. I, along with Richard and a few dozen other UK residents, am a subscriber to this system, which currently has some 2,000 members worldwide.
To put it in a nutshell, PAN is some software which runs on a bunch of DEC Vax 780s. No, they aren't digital reverb units, they are mini-computers (as opposed to 'micro' or 'mainframe') and they are controlled by one Perry Leopold, the founder, housekeeper, and 'major domo' of the network. He is the SysOp, jargonese for 'system operator' - the boss man. PAN is essentially an electronic mail service, but because of the nature of the activities of its subscribers it has developed into far more than just a means of transferring letters electronically. It is a worldwide club, an information source, a debating society, an international MIDI users group, a storehouse for sound samples and patches, a news service, as well as a messenger service.
We subscribers use our own personal computers, along with the gubbins (modem etc) mentioned in Richard's 'Music On-Line' articles, to phone in to the system and upload (send) or download (receive) data. It's all pretty simple stuff, though the technology is pretty recent.
This article was intended to be an interview with Perry Leopold, conducted 'on-line'. I ended up interviewing a computer, some software, and some of the people who use it. In the course of our exchanges it became obvious that the system is the man. Perry designed the software which makes it work, his interests and intentions are reflected in the options that are available once you are connected. He monitors the system as we use it, offering welcome guidance to those lost in the recesses of the bit-stream.
The PAN system works on a number of levels. You load your own personal computer with some communications software that turns it into a 'dumb' terminal capable of performing some limited tasks. One of these is controlling the modem (a hardware device which transfers data between your computer and telephone). Another is translating text into one of the few computing standards - ASCII code - which provides a standard typewriter character set with which to type your messages. This enables your dumb terminal to exchange text with any other machine capable of the same translation.
You then phone Perry and connect up, via one of 162 incoming phone lines, to his cluster of mini-computers. After supplying your name and password (no, these computers are in Boston, USA, not Cheltenham!) you are ushered into a sort of twilight zone, inside the PAN software.
I'm intentionally being a bit florid with my language here because to simply say that some text appears on your computer screen with a prompt asking what you'd like to do next, doesn't do the experience justice.
Once you are connected every second counts, for it costs you about 20 pence a minute of connect-time. This lends a certain spice to how you deal with the flashing on-screen prompt, and ensures that there are very few 'casual' users of the PAN system. The options become a maze of avenues from which you make your selection as quickly as possible; exploration is an experience that is not undertaken lightly.
I started our interview with some pretty basic stuff, the answers to which make the questions obvious. PAN was established by Perry Leopold in 1981 and was entirely a solo effort. He used to play in a band in the States which opened for many well-known people. There are 400 or so users dialling into the States from abroad, 200 of whom are in Japan. I then asked about a message that I had read in the PAN Forum, a sort of public notice-board where any user can post a message, concerning the award of a 'Panny' to SOS contributor Richard Elen. 'What on earth is a Panny?' I typed on my computer (our interview was being conducted 'on-line', remember).
"Panny Awards," Perry revealed, "are the PAN Network Award of Merit, which is bestowed upon an individual who, over a course of time (at least one year or so), consistently and tirelessly assists Network members with awesome displays of knowledge and experience, without any motivation other than the will to help (ie. not for promotional purposes, ordinary product or customer support, etc). Three awards have been made so far."
This highlights what PAN is all about and is perhaps its most attractive feature. Though the database facilities contain over a gigabyte (a mega-megabyte!) of data about all kinds of musical subjects, this is not just an inactive stockpile of information. PAN is a club which has as its members many motivated people who share common interests. It provides a focal point for those involved in the sphere of music production, not only as assistance for their businesses, but also as a means of information dissemination.
As a prerequisite, all PAN members own at least one personal computer (they can't get on-line otherwise!) and this fact, in combination with its billing as a music network, has meant that PAN has developed into the place where people who are engaged in these two fields congregate. The participation costs and the shared concerns generate an attitude of serious, though often humorous, contribution to the cause of acoustic exploration.
The members list reads like a 'Who's Who' of musical computing. Virtually every software house writing programs for musical applications is represented, from Southworth to Steinberg, by both special 'areas' within the software and by employees who are also 'PANsters'. Most of the US hardware manufacturers have on-line membership too, as do many performers, composers, University music departments, studios, etc.
PAN acts as a messenger between all these groups, for both text information and actual computer data like software, samples, and MIDI files. In its nature as a 'host', the PAN system software allows any form of computer data to be sent into it, where it goes then is really up to you.
While on-line to PAN, I had seen a message which made reference to a Madonna album. Apparently, some tracks had been recorded on a MIDI sequencer and then 'E-mailed' across the States by sending the sequence to an (electronic) mailbox. The guys in the studio just phoned up the system with their computer and downloaded the entire sequence, ready for recording. I asked Perry about it.
"Our mail system fully supports transfer of MIDI data to a private mailbox. This means that it is remarkably simple for people to transmit sequencer files back and forth so that collaboration and pre-production activities can be accomplished via modem, worldwide. It would be unfair to single out Madonna as I'd estimate that fully 75% of the major attractions in the pop world are on PAN in one respect or another."
"Because the mail system is totally private and secure (not even I can access another person's mailbox), it's impossible to tell who is sending what to whom. But it's going on every day, probably even as we speak."
The only drawback to the system is that any data which is not in ASCII format can only be read by the same software that encoded it. So, if I were to send a sequence in the form of a Steinberg Pro-24 song file, say, the receiver would need the same computer (ie. an Atari ST) and software (ie. Pro-24) in order to replay the sequence. This is not a fault of the system which PAN runs on, I hasten to add, but of the various people who design the computers and write the software which runs them. They all use their own in-house format when storing the data the software deals with. (In fact, the emergence of a 'standard' transfer format for both MIDI samplers and Apple Macintosh sequencer programs is almost entirely thanks to the feedback and debates the subject has evoked on PAN.)
What about the subscribers in Japan? I asked Perry. If the only agreed standard is ASCII, which takes the form of all the characters available on an English typewriter, how do they get on?
"Folks in Japan use ASCII when sending 'Romanji' mail to Americans, and they can send 'Kanji' when sending to other Japanese. There's a hidden command in MAIL (TT) which allows a file to be displayed in the character set it was transmitted in, as long as the reader's computer also supports that character set."
I think I get the picture. One of the most confusing aspects of international telecommunications is the many varied standards that different groups and countries have adopted.
The different communications groups offering services like Perry's get together and arrange bulk discounts with one another. They then modify their software so that system variations are accounted for automatically, as is the billing. The appropriate command response is then added to the list of options available to the users when on-line and a 'gateway' is established. I asked Perry about which other systems can be used to gain access to and from PAN.
"Current gateways include Geonet throughout Europe, Telestar in Japan, Siscotel in Argentina, Calvacom in France, and there are several others under consideration."
Wow, pretty global. Has anyone ever tried actually utilising PAN's services during a live performance, I wondered?
"Yes, we held an interesting conference a year ago with Japanese recording artist Claude Ciari. He was in concert in Tokyo and in the middle of the show he logged on to PAN and conferenced with us. Then he uploaded and downloaded a sequencer file and played it back to the audience. All the while, the audience looked on via a seven foot screen at the back of the stage. A remarkable event."
As an Atari ST user, I must admit that one of the things that has disappointed me slightly about PAN is the predominance of Apple Macintosh users and, thus, concentration on their concerns. I put this point to Perry.
"We most definitely do NOT favour any one computer over another. We are a music network, not a computer network," he replied. "The fact that so many members use a Mac is an indication of the preference of professional musicians in the USA, not any predilection on our part. To be sure, the fact that Steinberg, Dr. T, Passport, Sonus, etc, are all on-line points up that Atari computers are supported. It's just that there are (currently) more Mac users than others. If the Atari ST gains a greater foothold in US music circles, you'll see that fully reflected in the Network."
Nevertheless, when you are paying by the second to read information it can be a little frustrating to download twenty messages about subjects which are only barely relevant to your own activities. Especially once a 'great debate' has begun. These are held on the PAN Forum, essentially a bulletin board where users post messages for general consumption, with the subject matter being open for all to read. Messages cover anything from congratulations about a new album someone has released, to desperate pleas for assistance with complex and specific MIDI problems. I'm currently engaged in an on-going debate about the merits of one computer over another and it has been very interesting to read people's personal reasons for buying the machine they use. Luckily, because there are many users of different machines on-line, the threads of discussion usually quickly diversify into broader areas of interest.
If you feel that you'd like to 'meet' Perry Leopold and his friends on PAN, you'll need to have either your own NUI (Network User Identity) or to be a subscriber to the Geonet system. You'll also need to purchase a modem and some software to make it work with your computer. Finally, you'll be able to go 'on-line' and become a member of PAN itself.
I should warn you that it doesn't work out cheap, but you will have access to up-to-the-minute details on virtually every bit of musical technology you might be using. In addition, you will be able to turn to thousands of fellow musical technicians for help when you reach the limits of your understanding, and feel the joy of receiving a 'thank you' message from across the globe on the occasions when you can help someone else.
So, if you are in a position where you 'need to know', be it for work or pleasure, and you feel that your need warrants the costs involved, go for it - join!! The Network needs you too! (Incidentally, my user name is MARKBADGER on PAN and BADGER on Geonet; mail me when you get on-line.)
Feature by Mark Badger
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