... Brian Heywood pores over the PC...
Windows 3.1 est arrivé. The much hyped new version of the Microsoft operating environment has hit the shelves at last. As predicted, the new version has the multimedia extensions built in, along with a few other goodies. So what does this mean for the musician with a computer? At the moment, probably not a lot. Despite the fact that 3.1 was extensively beta tested by software developers, it will take a while for the software writers to start using the new features provided by the update.
However, when the features do start appearing they should be quite interesting. The most important enhancement should be that MIDI software can become independent of the MIDI interface hardware. At the moment it is the responsibility of the software writer to support the physical MIDI hardware that you choose to install in your PC. In the future, it will be the folk who make the hardware who will supply the drivers that allow Windows to talk MIDI with their hardware. This will mean that the developers will be able to concentrate on the software rather than having to support umpteen different MIDI interfaces. Other interesting new features will undoubtedly include the handling of sample playback alongside MIDI data, and MIDI patchbay-type functions.
On this subject, one of my main complaints about using Windows is the way it handles files and applications separately, unlike the Apple Macintosh and GEM (Atari) interfaces, which let you see both data files and programs on your desktop. In the Window's environment you have to use the Program Manager and File Manager, which tends to be somewhat cumbersome. That is, of course, unless you use Norton Desktop for Windows (NDW). NDW is a replacement for both Program Manager and File Manager that allows you to place documents and program icons directly on the desktop. You can access the disk drives by clicking on the drive icons which are also on the desktop. The program group windows can also float freely over over the desktop or be iconised, like programs, so that your 'wallpaper' is not obscured. Version 2.0 also comes bundled with Norton Backup and Norton Anti-Virus as well as various other tools to help you customise Windows. In all, NDW makes Windows a lot more fun and is available from Symantec on (Contact Details).
Of course, it's all very well rabbiting on about Windows, but there are far more PCs only running MS/DOS out there than there are running Windows. However, all is not lost if you want at least some of the multimedia features available to users of Windows. US company FM Software (of (Contact Details)) offer a package called MIDITools which, amongst other things, allows you to play MIDI files whilst you are using your computer for other things (like working for instance!). The software supports the Roland MPU401 or compatible MIDI interfaces, IBM PC Music Feature, Creative Labs Sound Blaster (with MIDI adapter box) and the Key MIDIator. This last interface allows you to use the MIDITools on laptop computers so that you can get your MIDI on the move. You could also use MIDITools to add music to presentations on DOS-based PCs with a sound card, since the MIDI file playback can be controlled from a batch file. There are also tools to monitor and analyse MIDI data, and to display the contents of MIDI files. The entire package of 10 utility programs and well written 90 page manual costs $60 direct from FM.
Actually, the Key MIDIator mentioned above is quite a useful piece of MIDI kit if you want to use a portable PC (perhaps in a live situation). The Key Electronics MIDIator range is a series of MIDI interfaces that connect to the PC's serial port, which means that you do not need to have a spare internal expansion slot. The range includes interfaces with up to four MIDI output ports, all of which can either be powered directly off the PC's serial port or use an external power supply. Although the MIDIator is not well supported in terms of software, there are a number of popular PC programs that can use it, such as Cakewalk and Band-in-a-Box, and of course MIDITools. Key Electronics can be reached on (Contact Details), and their interfaces are avialable through Soho Soundhouse ((Contact Details)). With any luck someone will write a MIDIator Windows driver, providing compatibility with the new generation of multimedia music applications that will soon be on the market.
In my last column I mentioned that the Sound Blaster Pro (SB Pro) sound card was the de facto standard for multimedia Windows. A multimedia sound card for the Windows Multimedia PC (MPC) standard needs to be able to record and replay samples, have an onboard synthesizer to play MIDI files, and have a controllable audio mixer for balancing the samples, synthesizer and CD audio output. Unfortunately the quality is not up to much when compared to even modest music set-ups, since the digital audio is only 8-bit, and the FM sound generators aren't up to the standard of pro-audio FM sound modules. However the SB Pro card is still remarkable value for money considering that it also has a CD ROM interface, joystick port and a 4-Watt stereo amplifier included on the sound card. I would say that the SB Pro card should be considered as a starting point, to which all other MPC cards will have to be compared.
Two such cards coming onto the market which are specifically designed for MPC applications are the Multisound card from Turtle Beach and the Gravis UltraSound. Turtle Beach are well known in the PC music world for their sample editing software (Sample Vision) and their hard disk recording system (the 56K). The Multisound card (available from MCM, (Contact Details)) is based on Motorola 56001 like the 56K card, and has the Emu Proteus chipset to supply the MIDI synth sounds. It costs around £1,000.
The Gravis card is Adlib and Sound Blaster compatible, has 16-bit digital audio, and synth chips from Ensoniq with MIDI and digital I/O options. The card should be available from Optech ((Contact Details)) by the time you read this, and it will cost around £150.
Feature by Brian Heywood
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