Things are a-hopping and a-popping in the PC multimedia world at the moment. Companies seem to be falling over themselves to release new products aimed at separating Windows users from their hard-earned cash. Maybe it has something to do with Christmas!
On the hardware front, Westpoint Creative ((Contact Details)) have announced three new products from Creative Labs, the people that gave you the Sound Blaster. The Sound Blaster 16, MIDI Blaster and the Port Blaster are products obviously designed to reach the sectors of the Multimedia PC (or MPC) market untouched by their successful Sound Blaster. The new products will be available from the end of October.
The Port Blaster is essentially a Sound Blaster (minus the CD-ROM interface) that fits onto the computer's parallel port and thus can be used with a portable PC. The audio consists of an 8-bit stereo digitised sound output with a 20-voice FM synthesizer based on Yamaha's OPL3 FM technology. There is also a microphone input. The unit has a full-duplex MIDI capability, incorporates an amplifier, audio mixer and speaker, and can be powered by either batteries or an external DC power supply.
The MIDI Blaster is an external expander module that is designed to connect to the PC using MIDI. It seems to use a combination of PCM and FM synthesis and has a General MIDI (GM) sound set, 33 sound effects and 55 drum sounds. Although the unit can produce GM sounds, it is not GM-compatible, as it only has 20-note polyphony, as opposed to the 24 voices required by the GM standard.
Sound Blaster 16 is an MPC sound card with 16-bit digital audio at sample rates between 5kHz and 44.1 kHz. The synthesizer section is again based on Yamaha's OPL3 FM chips, which seems a bit downmarket compared to the 16-bit digital audio. The card has an onboard mixer which can control the various inputs, namely microphone, line in, digital audio, CD audio, FM synthesizer section and the PC's speaker input. The card can record in either stereo or mono, at 8 or 16-bit resolution, and you can record from multiple sound sources. The MIDI interface looks interesting, since it emulates both the Sound Blaster and the Roland MPU401 (UART or 'dumb' mode only), letting you run more MIDI software than the older Sound Blaster. The card also has a CD-ROM interface and an on-board 4+4W stereo amplifier.
Media Vision (P&P New Technology; contact Tony Banks on (Contact Details)) also produce MPC hardware. Their range includes: the Thunder Board 2 (£116), an 8-bit sound card with an 11-voice FM synth (no MIDI); the ProAudio Spectrum, an 8 or 16-bit MPC sound card (£157 for 8-bit version, or £238 for the 16-bit version) with a 20-voice FM synth section and MIDI and SCSI ports; and the Audio Port (£145), which is a 'slotless' sound card with a similar specification to the Thunder Board. Another interesting product from P&P is their CDPC multimedia upgrade kit which puts the CD-ROM, speakers and MIDI connectors on an external unit that can sit under your VDU, making a very neat MPC system. In this case, neatness will set you back just under £1,000.
Whilst the above sound cards will give you sound and MPC compatibility for a reasonable price, the sound quality of the synthesizer sections leave a lot to be desired. If you want to your PC to produce reasonable synthesized sounds then you really need to get a sound card with a decent synth section. Two such cards — which I've mentioned here before — are the MultiSound (£949 from MCMXCIX, (Contact Details)) and the Gravis Ultrasound (£175 from Optech (Contact Details)). The Gravis card should finally be available in this country by the time you read this.
I have also heard rumours that the AdLib Gold card design has been bought up and will be released soon. I feel, though, that this card has rather missed the boat with the current crop of 16-bit cards becoming available.
Zone Distribution ((Contact Details)) have just announced two new sequencers to join the growing number of programs that use the music facilities built into Windows 3.1. The first is actually a whole range of products from Oktal, a company based in Quebec, Canada. According to the preliminary information there are three sequencers in the range; the MULTItude Junior, Pro and Pro/Score. There are versions available for the PC, the Atari and Macintosh families of computer, and you need to have at least 2MB of memory to be able to run the software. The sequencer features include: 768ppqn timing resolution; multi-tasking; 256 tracks/80 MIDI channels; drum page; mixer page for MIDI controllers; 99 levels of 'undo'; and tape machine control (Fostex, Tascam). The scoring side includes performance transcription that notates dynamics and correctly detects tuplets, and has full print facilities, including part extraction.
The second sequencer is SeqWin, and is the product of a UK company. The price tag should be less than £100, which should give the program a wider appeal than the more expensive Oktal packages. The beta test version of this program has quite an interesting user interface, with a very 'Windows' feel, making extensive use of the mouse to click and drag in all the edit screens. However, the basic tenet is that you shouldn't have to worry about the details of MIDI when you're creating your music — sort of a 'MIDI-free zone'. After you've described your MIDI instruments to the setup program at installation, you deal exclusively with the names of the instruments. The program will quietly work out how to make that instrument play, only warning you if you run out of voices. This approach is especially useful if you have a multi-timbral sound module such as a Roland GS device. SeqWin will juggle the MIDI channels, and program changes, dynamically assigning the instrument to the first available free MIDI channel. There are too many other features to list here, but you will certainly hear more about this program in future issues of SOS.
Turtle Beach have finally released their Wave for Windows sound editor/recorder for multimedia applications. Wave has extensive sound editing and processing facilities, and can import SampleVision SMP files, allowing you to transfer digital audio from your sampler into Windows. The program will work with any MPC sound card. Wave costs £99.95 and is available from MCM (contact Jason on (Contact Details) for orders).
Turnkey now have Windows 3.1 drivers for the KEY Electronics interfaces and the CMS non-MPU401 compatible interfaces. The KEY interfaces connect to the PC's serial port, and thus will now allow you to sequence from your laptop or swap the interface between two PCs without opening the box. Contact Richard Fincher on (Contact Details) to find out how to get an update. Turnkey have also reduced the prices on the KEY MS101 and MS103 interfaces; the former is now £69 and the latter is £109.
Yamaha have also released a Windows 3.1 driver for their TG100 GM sound module. This driver lets you connect the sound module to your PC's serial port, thus either freeing up your computer's MIDI port for other sound modules or giving a MIDI capability to a portable PC. Contact Jim Corbett at Yamaha/Kemble ((Contact Details)) for your copy of this driver. These drivers are also available for download from the route66/progs area of CIX (081 390 1244 — modem).
Actually, the TG100 is a very interesting sound module: as well as having 28-note polyphony, it can be driven from the PC's serial port. This feature is obviously Yamaha's bid to get into the Multimedia PC market, allowing any PC access to high-quality sound without the need for a MIDI card. For the PC musician, this means that you can add a General MIDI (GM) module to your sequencing setup without having to dedicate a complete MIDI port to the device. You can even use it as an alternative to a MIDI interface, which is good news for users of laptop computers. Some of the non-windows sequencers are also starting to support the TG100 as well; Voyetra have promised that the new version of Sequencer Plus will let you use a TG100 this way.
Cool Shoes have now released version 2.0 of Drummer (see PC Notes September). The new features include; more interfaces supported, improved MIDI file support, real-time MIDI control of playback, more control over the drum patterns, and an improved user interface. Drummer costs $99 and can be ordered direct from Cool Shoes on (Contact Details). A demo version of the program is available for download from the route66/progs area of CIX (modem (Contact Details)).
I've also come across a Windows drum page editor called The*Drums. This software is written by an Italian by the name of Fabio Marzocca. The main window of The*Drums is a drum grid representing a single bar in common time (ie. 4/4); each beat can be divided into up to 16 divisions. There is an arrange mode which allows you to sequence up to 32 bars into a pattern, which can then be saved as a MIDI file, although this function was disabled on the demo version. On the whole, the program feels a bit 'clunky' and you can't edit the pattern while it's playing. The*Drums is available from Software Excitement! at a cost of $50 on (Contact Details). The demo is available for download from the route66/progs area of CIX (as td400.ZIP).
Voyetra have announced a new version (4.10) of their popular Sequencer Plus The only significant additions are support for new interfaces and sound cards — and the Yamaha TG100 via the PC's serial port. There will only be a nominal handling charge for the new version. Contact Julian at CMS ((Contact Details)).
Zone have released an interesting piece of DOS music software called Jammer. This appears to be a fairly powerful sequencer coupled with auto accompaniment features, with a dash of artificial intelligence thrown in for good measure. Each 'member' of the Jammer band can play back in any of the supplied styles, giving a large number of variations in overall style, and the program will even compose a chord progression for you. Jammer needs a mouse and an MPU401 or compatible interface and is available from Zone Distribution ((Contact Details)). It costs £109 to registered customers and £159 to all others.
Feature by Brian Heywood
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