RAM Music Machine
For Spectrum and Amstrad Computers
The would-be Fairlight killer comes under scrutiny at last. Ian Waugh reports on an ambitious add-on for Spectrum and Amstrad micros.
Of all the all-singing, all-dancing drum machines, samplers and MIDI interfaces for small home computers, this is one of the most ambitious. Does it cram too much in?
THE DRUM EDITOR is similar to the bar editor, but there is only one stave of eight lines, each line representing a different sound sample. The time signature, tempo and name features are the same, but here you can sound three samples at the same time.
The tune editor brings everything together. There are two sections: one for drums, the other for music. Individual bars and drum patterns are chained together to form a complete tune, much as you'd arrange patterns on a programmable drum machine. The process is quick and easy to use, and offers you the ability to insert and delete bars as required. The editor can store up to 255 bars of music.
You still can't play the drums and music through the Music Machine at the same time, though. To hear them both, you need to send the music to a MIDI instrument.
The MIDI page is divided into two parts containing three MIDI sections which the program calls, a mite confusingly, channels A, B and C. Channel A in the top, external section receives incoming MIDI data which is used to play either the drums or music. It defaults to 0, the program's Omni mode, but can be set to receive on any of the 16 MIDI channels.
DESPITE THE FACILITIES offered by Music Machine's sequencing options, it'll be the thought of a sampler for under £50 that will attract a lot of people to the machine. And as it turns out, the sampling facilities are quite comprehensive for an instrument in this price range. The system can store up to eight samples in memory at once, albeit up to a none-too-generous total maximum of around 1.1 seconds. You can store a biggie or - and this is where the Music Machine's special strength may lie - several short drum-type samples.
The sampling screen has a bar-level meter to indicate the volume of the sound you want to sample. There is also an adjustable volume control on the top of the Music Machine to help get the level right. There is an automatic sample grabber (triggered when the sound reaches approximately -6dB) and also a manual method for pinching snare drum sounds off records (among other things).
During the test period, I found it difficult to record clean samples with the supplied microphone, so I plugged the Music Machine directly into my cassette deck, which cut down on the noise a fair bit.
The edit facility is neat. It gives an on-screen graphic display of the sound you've just captured, and you can chop bits off the front and back to tidy the sample up. A zoom facility is provided for close-up work, though the degree of precision this affords is probably beyond the resolution of the sound.
Each sample you make is likely to fill all the free memory, so you need to truncate it with the editing facilities if you want to store more than one, and that's why the editing option comes in so useful. A nice extra is the reverse option to play a sound backwards, and there's also a loop facility, though I found that every time I used it, the sound tended to repeat rather than merge, even after I'd zoomed in to look for corresponding plateaux.
Specification-wise, Music Machine's sampling rate is quoted as 19.444kHz, with a bandwidth of 9.5kHz (the cutoff frequency of the filters), and actually, although those figures don't bear comparison with those of more upmarket instruments, with a little care you can capture some good, clean sounds. The software loads with seven drum sounds which are really rather good, though the eighth sound, inventively called "synth", is too short and bland to be interesting.
A GLANCE AT the manual gives the first clue to the market the Music Machine is aimed at. It's scattered throughout with a liberal dose of humour which, if you don't have a sense of humour yourself, you might choose to call sardonic. It pleads with you not to hurt yourself "by using an amplifier stupidly", and regales you with the fact that the most common way of blowing-up computers is to plug and unplug peripherals while the power is still on. If you are still in any doubt, a passage in bold type tells you to get help from an adult or specialist and cautions you that electricity can kill. Still, it's no dull read, this manual, so long as you don't cringe at condescension.
The Music Machine was designed by Flare Technology, escapees all from the Sinclair factory, and there's no doubt that they have produced a fascinating and quite remarkable peripheral. I could play with it for days - and indeed I have even though it falls quite a few feet short of semi-pro requirements, which is only to be expected considering the price.
And that, really, is the crux of the matter. There's no doubt that a lot of powerful features have been crammed into the Music Machine, and it would be churlish (dishonest, even) to say that it is not good value for money. But some may feel that, in an effort to keep the cost down, the system's designers have cut too many corners for their machine to be a worthwhile addition to a semi-pro studio.
It's not going to worry Fairlight (as if anyone thought it actually would), and it's not going to give drum machine manufacturers any sleepless nights, either. Some enterprising - and penny-conscious - home studio owners, however, may well take this and make music with it and generally have a whale of a time. And why not?
Prices The Music Machine. Tape versions for Spectrum, Amstrad CPC464/664 - £49.95; disk version for Amstrad CPC464/664/6/28 - £59.95. P&P £1 (£3 overseas).
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Review by Ian Waugh
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