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 ADVERTS LOOK very inviting: "At around £50, Fairlight ought to be more than a little worried." Hmm... I thought that sort of thing disappeared with Sinclair's claim that the ZX81 could be used to run a power station. Still, if someone launched an instrument in competition with your product but at only 1/400th of the price, you'd be worried too, wouldn't you?
When you read the small print, however, the facilities offered by RAM's Music Machine come into perspective. It offers sound sampling including editing facilities, echo effects, a two-voice music editor and tune composer and MIDI compatibility. Still impressive, especially at £50, so let's get started.
As the listing at the end of this review shows, Music Machine is available in several different formats for a number of different computers. My review sample (pun not intended) was a tape version for the Sinclair Spectrum.
Everything the Music Machine has to offer is menu-driven, and options are selected by pressing the capital letter associated with the menu choice. The Main Menu contains the following: Play, Midi, ecHo, Load/save, tuNe editor, Bar editor, Drums, sAmple editor, pianO, basic, dElete, drUm editor and sampleR. It doesn't take long at all to become familiar with the commands. You also see the amount of free memory in the computer, the name of the current tune in memory and eight samples, which are initially seven drums and a synth sound.
If you want to hear what the Music Machine can do straight away you can press P for Play. The manual says you will hear a tune but you don't; you hear a pretty impressive drum track instead. You have to read another eight pages to discover how to play the tune. The Music Machine can only play either drums or a tune, not both at once, and your choice must be selected from the MIDI page. Once you've got that sorted out, the rest is fairly straightforward. The manual also says the other side of the program tape contains an audio demo to show what the Music Machine can do, but mine was blank. Oh, well.
Let's press a button: H for ecHo. This acts on signals from the microphone. The delay time can be varied, but the maximum (obviously) depends upon the amount of free memory. Unfortunately, this effect produced a large amount of background noise during the test, even though I switched off all nearby electrical equipment (apart from the amp, of course), which is a shame.
Piano lets you play the top two rows of the QWERTY keys. What you actually hear is one of the samples, and you can call up any of the eight stored in memory. From here or from the Main Menu, you can enter the Drum page which displays a cluster of keys in a drum pad configuration. These let you play all eight samples but only at one pitch. In both cases, you can only play one note at a time.
The bar editor screen shows a traditional stave consisting of a treble and bass clef with two leger lines above and below. You can choose three "time signatures": 8, 12 or 16. These are simply the number of notes per bar. If you choose 16, for example, all notes are semiquavers. The definition and length of the notes as you hear them depends upon the sample used to play them. If you entered 16 notes all at the same pitch across the bar, chances are you'd just hear one note the length of the sample. You may have either wanted 16 discrete notes or one long one, and you'd get neither.
Notes appear as lines rather than dots, but as they have no individual duration other than that determined by the time signature, that's no hardship. You can enter two lines of music per bar, though both lines play with the same voice. If you enter a third line, the program rubs out the nearest existing line.
A nice feature is the ability to set a different tempo for each bar, so you can program ralls and accells. You can also give each bar a name to help when ordering bars into a tune.
Deleting a bar is a bit fiddly, though. You must go back to the Main Menu, select the delete option, choose delete a bar, enter the bar number, return to the Main Menu and then go back to the bar editor. The delete section, incidentally, lets you get rid of samples, drum and music bars, or the entire contents of the memory.
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.
In the lower, or play, section, channels A and B can both be used to transmit the drums or music, though the manual says they correspond to drums and music respectively.
Again, this is initially a bit confusing, but once you get the hang of things, you can make the Music Machine play the drums while a MIDI keyboard plays the music. You still can't split the duophonic music line; you can send both sets of data to the one channel, but you'd only want to do this for the hell of it because, in all honesty it sounds pretty terrible.
Selecting the external option lets you play drums (ie. eight individual samples at one pitch) or music (ie. one sample at any pitch) on an external MIDI keyboard. This works fine, but you're best off not trying to get too clever by playing more notes than you are allowed; if you do, nasty clicks appear.
The Music Machine also has a MIDI Thru socket, and the manual suggests using this to chain 16 Spectrums together and orchestrating them. A nice idea (if a trifle expensive), but there is no obvious way to synchronise them, since the only MIDI data the Music Machine deals with (perhaps not surprisingly) is note on and note off events. There's not enough room in the computer, as the manual points out, to include a real-time sequencer, but it hints that future software may give you just that.
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).