...Brian Heywood reports on the latest PC developments...
Wandering around the APRS Show in London this week, it seemed to me that everybody (and their dog) is releasing or announcing hard disk recording systems. Quite a few were on show, including a number which ran on IBM PCs and used Windows as their user interface.
Two of those that caught my attention were the Spectral Synthesis Audioengine ((Contact Details)) and the Studio Audio SADiE Disk Editor ((Contact Details)). These two products represent the two extremes in the market, the former being a 'top end' digital multitrack with up to 16 inputs and outputs, and a maximum of 256 virtual tracks, which takes up at least two expansion slots on the PC. At the other extreme, the SADiE shoehorns all its circuitry onto a single PC expansion card to give you an affordable 2 or 4-track system without compromising the quality of the sound output. Both systems have their own independent hard disks, to which they interface directly using SCSI, and rely on the digital audio conversion being performed externally, either from your DAT player or using dedicated DACs and ADCs. Both systems also use Windows to provide the user with a familiar software environment for controlling and editing recorded material, and both support the multimedia extensions of Windows 3.1, to give device-independent MIDI.
I guess that, being a bear of limited budget, I was most impressed by the Studio Audio product, since it places hard disk recording well within the budget of musicians and small production houses. There were also PC-based systems being displayed by Plasmec ((Contact Details)) and Digigram ((Contact Details)), whose Xtrack system uses real-time data compression to cram more music onto your hard disk.
The integration of music into Windows 3.1 has both complicated and simplified the rather thorny field of MIDI interfaces for the IBM PC. It has complicated the field by sparking the release of a host of new interfaces, all with different interfacing requirements and facilities. On the other hand, the fact that it is the responsibility of the company producing the hardware to make it compatible with Windows means that the PC owner doesn't have to worry about whether his or her Windows 3.1 or MPC software can use the card — Windows will take the strain.
Key Electronics, Music Quest, MIDIMan and Steinberg have all either released or announced new interfaces for the PC. The first of the new Key interfaces is the MS 124, a 4-port interface that fits onto the PC's serial port; this is especially useful if you use a laptop or don't have any spare slots in your PC. Key have also announced an 8-port interface that connects to the parallel (Centronix) printer port on the PC. This gives your software access to 128 independent MIDI channels, and should become available within the next three months. Music Quest ((Contact Details)) have also moved into the field of slotless MIDI interfaces with the announcement of their MIDI Engine Laptop which has two MIDI Ins and Outs, a metronome output, and SMPTE/EBU timecode support. They've also announced a version of this interface which consists of an internal card and a rack mounted unit with eight independent inputs and outputs, as well as a video input for synchronising the timecode to video frames.
A relative newcomer to the world of PC MIDI interfaces is MIDIMan, based in California (Zone Distribution (Contact Details)). Unlike the Key and Music Quest interfaces above, their MM401 interface is compatible with the Roland MPU401 'standard', though it has a subtle enhancement in the form of an additional timer. They must be doing something right, since Steinberg have chosen to re-badge the MM401 MIDI interface as their PC MIDI Board. One of the interesting features of the MM401 is that it can be used with PCs of any speed, regardless of whether you're running an old 4.77 MHz IBM PC or the latest 50 MHz 486. It also happens to be the cheapest MPU-type on the market at the moment, costing just under £70.
If you're waiting for the Adlib Gold sound card for your Windows multimedia setup, I'm afraid you're out of luck, since the Canadian government has put Adlib out of business by calling in their loans. I've had some more details about the Gravis Ultrasound card I mentioned last month: the basic card, which supports MIDI, 16-bit sample replay, 8-bit recording and a 32-voice wavetable synthesizer (and is SoundBlaster and AdLib compatible) will cost around £250. Additional expansion cards costing £60 each will add a CD-ROM interface and a 16-bit recording facility. The UltraSound card should be available next month from OpTech ((Contact Details)). Last week I came across another MPC soundcard, the MediaMaster, which also has a wavetable synthesizer. It costs £222 and is available from Reeves ((Contact Details)).
Steinberg's Cubase for Windows is due to be released at the end of this month. At £435 it is not cheap, although it is less expensive than the current Atari and Apple Mac versions. Cubase for Windows supports the Windows 3.1 MIDI drivers, plus a range of other MIDI interfaces, and will be available from Harman Audio ((Contact Details)).
Twelve Tone Systems are about to launch a Windows version of their popular Cakewalk sequencer for the PC. The new version apparently takes full advantage of the Windows 3.1 multimedia features and allows you to control the PC's digital audio as well as MIDI devices — I hope to have more information next month.
Voyetra are releasing their first piece of Windows software, Audio View, which is aimed at the multimedia authoring sector. The software is actually a suite of three programs: an audio mixer, a CD audio controller, and a wave editor. The editor allows you to mix several wave files, so that music, sound effects and voice (for instance) can be combined to produce a single sound file to be used with a multimedia application. Audio View will be available from CMS ((Contact Details)) and should cost around £100.
One advantage that the Atari ST has over both the Mac and the PC in the home studio is that it doesn't have a cooling fan, and is therefore quieter. The fan in your PC is designed to shift enough air to keep the electronics cool in the worst possible conditions, which means that it is usually making more noise than it needs to. You can, however, fit a temperature control to the fan to cut down the noise it makes, and I know of two units on the market which will do this — the first is a Danish device called Noise Killer, available from Taran Technology ((Contact Details)) for £56.40. The second unit is made in the UK and is called the Easiflow. It's a little cheaper and is available from Personics ((Contact Details)). Both units will only work if your fan is a 12v DC type and, as always, only attempt this kind of modification if you feel confident about opening your PC and cutting wires.
Feature by Brian Heywood
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