Grab a PC of the action
ST users have them. Amiga users have them. And now PC owners can have one too - a budget-priced sampler for their computer...
The novelty of PC Master Sound (apart from the fact that it costs less than fifty quid) is that the sample cartridge plugs into your computer's parallel port. That means not having to open your machine and fiddle about with cards. There are no IRQ and DMA settings to alter either, and users with portable PCs will be pleased to learn they can use it, too. In fact, Master Sound will run on any AT machine - 286 upwards - with EGA or VGA display and DOS 3.0 or above. It will even run without a hard disk - although if you don't have one of these I'd suggest you put it at the top of your shopping list. The program also requires a mouse.
The cartridge has phono In and Out sockets and a volume control for setting the recording level. Included with the package are a pair of 1.2m phono cables to plug into your hi-fi, but like most cables that are supplied with equipment, they are a little too short to be of any real use. Both 3.5" and 5.25" discs are provided and each contains three programs: the Editor, Drum Beat and Player.
The Editor is where the sampling is done - the screen including button icons for all the program's functions. The sample is displayed as a conventional 'oscilloscope' waveform in the central window and it's possible to isolate a section with left and right markers. You can also vary the record and playback speeds from 4-20kHz, although there are only five fixed rates. Shame it's not fully variable.
As well as the usual record, play, cut, copy and paste functions you can overlay one sample with another, alter the volume, create fade ins and outs, reverse the sample, add echo and apply filtering. It's also possible to zoom in and out in order to home in on an area of a sample for more detailed editing. You can pre-determine the size of the edit buffer which is used during paste functions; set to 0, the program will create a temporary file on disk which is useful for users with limited RAM. Monitor and scope functions let you check the incoming signal level prior to recording and you can adjust this with the control on the cartridge.
Also included is a Shrink function which will compress a sample to half its original size in order to conserve memory. I found it a good idea to record at the fastest possible speed - 20kHz - and then shrink the sample to obtain the best results. Other goodies include a loop function, a FFT (Fourier Fast Transform) display (which is impressive to look at but of limited practical use), and a keyboard function which lets you play samples from your PC's keyboard - though only in mono. None of the programs support MIDI.
The program supports custom AVR samples and Windows' Wav format - and indeed, you can load in any sample format - but be prepared for some unpredictable results. (A fully adjustable sample rate would have been useful here.) Loading in the Drum Beat program effectively turns your PC into a programmable drum machine. In fact, the program's modus operand! follows closely that of most drum machines. You can construct up to 50 patterns and link them together to create up to 10 songs - each having up to 100 pattern entries. The various song, pattern and loading screens are selected from a menu which stays at the top of the screen.
Patterns are built up by clicking 'hits' onto a grid which can be up to 32 beats long and each pattern can be assigned its own tempo. It's dead easy to program, but unfortunately, you can't play the pattern and edit it in real time. Also, though it is possible to save and load single patterns, you can't copy and paste individual drum lines.
When constructing a song, it's necessary to assign a pattern number to one of the 100 song slots and enter a figure for how many times you want it to repeat. You can also enter a jump command which takes the play routine to another part of the song. Insert and delete functions are included to help with editing and you can play the current pattern so you know how well it will fit into the song list.
The samples themselves are assembled into 'drum kits' of up to 15 samples each - though only two samples may be played at the same time and you have to decide whether you're going to enter a hit on channels 1 or 2. If you enter hit on a channel and there's already a hit at that time slot somewhere else in the pattern, the first hit will disappear. I can't help feeling it would have been better if you weren't allowed to enter the subsequent hit in the first place. If the two-sample limit does pose a problem, there's nothing to stop you creating your own double samples - snare and bass drum, for example - so you could effectively 'sound' more than two drums at the same time.
Incidentally, the program comes with its own set of drum samples (which are actually very good), and there's also an excellent demo track. The final program - Player - is simply a sample player which lets you play AVR samples from DOS. You can play sounds through the PC's speaker, through the Master Sound cartridge or through a Sound Blaster or Ad Lib card output - although I found this didn't work with a third-party card set up for Sound Blaster emulation.
It's a shame that the designers, AVR, didn't take the opportunity of producing a conversion to spruce up the interface. The new editor in Replay 16 for the ST (reviewed in MT December 1992), for example, is superb. The program may be easy to use but the interface is antique. It's necessary, for example, to exit a screen before you can access any of the functions from the menu at the top of the screen. Drum Beat hasn't been updated much either (even through successive generations on the ST) and it is perhaps time it was.
In fact, in comparison with some of Microdeal's other samplers, PC Master Sound may seem a little basic. But the programs do what they set out to do: they work well, they are easy to use and they're fun! Above all, the package is affordable and Microdeal are to be congratulated for looking at the PC market at last. If PC Master Sound does well I've no doubt we'll be seeing more sophisticated PC samplers appear - possibly even a high quality 16-bit stereo MIDI-compatible sampler (this is only speculation on my part, dear readers). Meanwhile, there's now a useful little sampler package for PC users which is easy to fit and requires virtually no setting up. That's got to be an attractive proposition.
Price: PC Master Sound £49.95 inc VAT Plus £1.00 P&P
More from: Microdeal (Contact Details)
Review by Ian Waugh
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