Quinsoft FB01 Librarian
Atari ST Software
When you're on a limited budget it's important to get the most out of every piece of gear you own. Gordon Reid checks out budget software aimed at getting the best out of your FB01.
The FB01 is possibly the weakest application of FM synthesis to appear from the Yamaha stable. Quinsoft's librarian could help to redeem it as a useful budget synth.
THE YAMAHA FB01 was eagerly awaited when it was first launched in 1984. Its specification was impressive and, for its time, the price/performance ratio was even more so. In the days when a DX9 cost £1000, and a Juno 6 nearly £800, here was a neat module that used FM synthesis (this was the heyday of the DX7), offered 324 patch locations, 96 user-programmable memories, 20 user-configurable performance memories, was eight-note polyphonic and, to ice the cake, was multitimbral. The specs were interesting enough in themselves, but the price of the unit (£299) was extraordinary. The FB01 arrived, sold a fair number of units, and then quietly died, having singularly failed to set the world alight. Today you can pick up a virtually unused second-hand FB01 in perfect condition for about £120. And they don't just appear occasionally - you can find them in MT's Free Ads every month. So what led to the downfall of what is, even today, a well specified expander, when far more limited systems such as the Korg EX800 seem set to stay in use for some time to come?
Something like 90% of synths that ever find their way back to their manufacturers still have the factory presets intact in memory. That means that most of us have never even bothered to try to program our synths. Consequently, all the wonderful gear on the market - FM, LA, AI or Analogue - is being judged on the quality of the factory preset sounds. But, and here's the rub, the FB01 presets weren't thrilling five years ago, and by today's standards most of them fall somewhere between bearable and diabolical. To make matters worse, the FB01 is not programmable from the front panel. To edit patches or to create new ones from scratch, you have to use a computer. So even those die-hards who would otherwise take the trouble to get the best from the system are unable to do so without £500 worth of Atari and software - that's a big investment just to program a £299 synth. The problem really comes back to those awful presets. The FB01 gained an unenviable reputation for sounding like a wet f*rt, and very few people make the effort to see if anything better can be obtained from it.
Three years after the FB01, Yamaha released the programmable multi-waveform TX81Z, and the fate of the earlier unit was sealed. The FB01 became the ultra-cheap FM expander for hard-up musicians who quickly got bored with them, and ended up advertising them in the second-hand columns for peanuts. And that's a shame, because there's more to the FB01 than meets the eye (or ear), and it actually has facilities that are lacking on the TX81Z, V50, and all their modern siblings. In fact, the FB01 relates more closely to the original DX7 than to Yamaha's other 4-op synths. So what's needed is a package that allows you to get the best from your FB01, and actually achieve the potential that's tucked away inside it.
There has been editor/librarian software available almost since the unit was released, of which the most successful of these was probably Steinberg's FB01 Synthworks. This combines powerful editing capabilities and a full-function librarian. But Synthworks retails for £100, and that's far too much for most people - many of whom didn't pay much more for the expander itself. In addition, the original FM programming system was a nightmare, and prior to Yamaha's "Easy-FM" system (as implemented in the V50 and TQ5) the very thought of programming in FM sent most sensible synthesists diving for cover. So, five years after the launch of the FB01, there's still a requirement for a package that allows you to get good sounds from your FB01, is easy to use, and doesn't cost the earth. This, finally, brings us round to the Quinsoft FB01 Librarian which, at £25, has to be worth a look.
THE FB01 LIBRARIAN comes in the now standard plastic wallet with a single 3.5" disk and a concise 20-page manual. Only one disk again - this wouldn't matter if you could make a back-up of the master disk, but you can't. Dongles are expensive, and certainly out of the question for a £25 package, but if a manufacturer is going to protect the master disk itself, he should supply a backup. And unfortunately for Quinsoft, my master disk wouldn't load. Nothing would persuade the program to start and with no backup I was, to say the least, inconvenienced. Quinsoft were very helpful when contacted, and the problem was eventually tracked down to the copy protection mechanism having a bout of indigestion over my version of the operating system (TOS 1.14). Quinsoft now claim to have sorted this one out.
The Librarian itself is (as you will read) very easy to use, so the manual comes as a bit of a surprise. Many purchasers will find it easier to just load the program and get on with a bit of trial-and-error experimentation, than decipher the manual. It's nicely enough produced, but it's confusing - no mean feat when you consider the simplicity of the program. Most purchasers of a program like this are going to be novices, so the manual is an important part of the overall package. There are no graphics to be found anywhere in the package. It doesn't cost much to supply a few diagrams or screen dumps of the right program, and Quinsoft should sort this out as quickly as possible.
CALLING THIS PIECE of software a librarian doesn't really do it justice, since it comes complete with a number of voice files containing 480 FB01 voices. In fact, a pure librarian for the FB01 would be useless since you still wouldn't be able to edit your voices - just move them around in memory in endless combinations. Quinsoft would do better to advertise the program as a Voice Library with full memory management capabilities.
The Librarian offers you two memory banks into which you can load sounds. The sounds may be selected from the 480 supplied with the package, or MIDI dumped from the FB01 itself. Each memory bank can hold 192 voices, and is split into four voice blocks of 48 voices each. These blocks are equivalent to the memory blocks of the FB01 itself. On loading the software you are presented with a well laid-out screen with five menu bar options, two voice banks (each of which display the names of the 48 voices in the selected block) and two sets of control boxes which select the voice blocks within the two memory banks. To select a different block just press the mouse button with the pointer over the appropriate block number.
Sounds complicated? Don't worry, it's a cinch. With eight blocks of 48 voices you can have 384 voices loaded into the Atari's memory simultaneously, although in practice you would want to leave at least one block empty for manipulating data and building up your own voice/memory configurations.
"Calling the FB01 Librarian a librarian doesn't really do it justice, since it comes complete with a number of voice files containing 480 FB01 voices."
The Voice Data menu option enables you to Load a block from disk, Save it back again, or Send or Get a block from the FB01. This is as much as many users will want from the program, and enables you to use the 96-voice programmable memory of the synth to excellent effect. Just keep the program disk at hand and you have all 480 voices quickly available (although not, of course, all at the same time). A hint for twin drive users: loading the voices from drive B: frequently crashes the system, so don't do it. For advanced users, a good way to use the two memory banks would be to load the voices you want into Bank A, and then arrange your most frequently used sounds into two blocks in bank B. Voices are moved by 'picking them up' with the mouse and depositing them in whatever new location is required. These blocks can then be sent to the FB01. The program has a number of additional options to make life as easy as possible. You can rename voices and sort them into alphanumeric order, swap two voices in memory, and print the voice list. All in all, nice 'n' easy. The other commands are to clear a block out, and to invert the screen colours if you wish.
The FB01 Librarian can handle performance data as well as voice data. The FB01 can store 20 configurations which detail voice assignments, MIDI channels, and pitch, detune, and modulation settings. Configuration files can be Loaded, Saved, Got and Sent, in exactly the same way as voice files.
ASSUMING THAT YOU have an FB01, no editor, and no voices other than those supplied by Yamaha, the Librarian wouldn't be worth a penny without the 480 voices that are supplied with it. Therefore the real crux of the review is: "how good are the voices?". The ten banks of 48 voices are grouped into loose families - pianos, strings, plucked instruments - you know the sort of thing. And each familiy has a number of subgroups - PianoX, EpianoX, and so on (where X is a number) - and this makes voice selection much easier than a random arrangement. (Have you ever tried finding a patch of the Oberheim Matrix 1000 when you've forgotten the voice number?).
There are two ways to test a voice using the Librarian. Firstly; pointing at a voice on screen selects it, and subsequent presses of the right-hand mouse button play the sound. Move the mouse to the right and the pitch goes up, move it away from you and the velocity increases. The converses are, of course, also true. Alternatively, you can connect a MIDI keyboard to the MIDI In of the FB01 or the Atari (which echoes all MIDI commands straight through to the FB01). Unfortunately, to use the librarian you have to connect the Atari in handshaking mode - that is, MIDI In of the Atari to MIDI Out of the FB01, and vice-versa. This makes life quite tricky if you want to test voices with a MIDI keyboard and you haven't got a MIDI merge box, because it's no fun pulling out, and inserting, MIDI cables every time you want to try a new sound out.
The strength of early FM systems lies in their ability to produce precise transient sounds such as harps and chimes. There's no escaping from the fact that sustained voices really do sound like a wet... OK, so I've already said that, but don't hold out too much hope for the flutes, clarinets, oboes and so on, on these disks. Brass voices fair a little better, and some of the tubas are rather good, but the trumpets and saxes are weak and the brass stabs are abysmal. Vibes are much more useable, and the mandolins and banjos are almost exciting. The harpsichords are very useable and the clavinets are definitely worth a play - both open and muted voices. Most of the pianos and harpsichords are reminiscent of the Roland MKS10, and one of the grand pianos is the best I've heard from 4-op FM. In fact, I've heard far worse analogue-based pianos. There are the expected crop of electric organs (weak) and pipe organs (better) and also some interesting sample and hold voices (called RandomX) which sound quite unusual coming from an FM synth.
Quinsoft have certainly thought about the voices and soma interesting tricks have been used to try to overcome the limitations of the FB01. Modulated slow envelopes have been used to simulate ambience (which is seriously lacking on the factory presets) and vibrato has been used creatively as an effect rather than just as a characteristic of a given voice. The Tremelo-ed Rhodes is a pleasing example of this. In addition, velocity sensitivity has been maximised, and the range of dynamics (especially on some of the bass sounds) can be exceptional. Finally, there are some interesting drum sounds. The Timpani are quite expressive, and there's a curious collection of sub-TR808 basses, snares, and toms. If all this sounds rather positive, bear in mind that there are 480 voices on this disk and most of them haven't beeo mentioned. You could try using the multitimbral configurations to fatten up the weaker voices with de-tune, but do you really want to have only four- or even two-note polyphony? Funnily enough, my favourite sound on the disk is one of eight 2-op voices in the library (only using half of the synth's oscillators). It's warm, smooth and eminently useable. I'm sure that there's a lesson in there somewhere.
The Librarian comes complete with a desk accessory called Bulkload which, in principle, allows you to load memory blocks direct to the FB01 from the floppy disk, even while another program is running. Designed for use with sequencers, Quinsoft do not guarantee it to work with all packages. There is no Atari standard for DAs, and therefore it's not always possible to predict how other manufacturers' software will react to having a MIDI dump performed during their own execution.
QUINSOFT'S FB01 LIBRARIAN Is a small package, written by a small company, for which you pay a small sum of money. As such, it has an aura of "cheap and cheerful" about it. There's nothing wrong with that, and there's no practical reason not to buy the package. Unlike in polite society, where methane-induced sounds are quite unacceptable, there is a place for such sounds in music. The FB01 is far from everyone's cup of Assam, and if your idea of bliss is a Minimoog, a Jupiter 8. or a Prophet 5, forget the FB01, or sell it if you already own one because this package is not going to change the way you feel about 4-operator FM synthesis. However, if you have an FB01, have no wish to edit it, and are tired of the presets, £25 is a small price to pay for so many new options. Let's face it, in the last analysis most things in life are worth a shot if the price is right. And that includes this FB01 Librarian!