Screen With A View
With the arrival of Microsoft's Multimedia Windows, the much-derided PC could become a musician-friendly computer. Adrian Sutton gets a clearer view.
Long derided by the musical fraternity, the PC is about to acquire an interface which might make it "musician friendly" for the first time.
IT'S USUALLY CONSIDERED rude to mention the words 'PC compatible' in the company of music technology (small m, small t) people. I know because I once made the mistake during a group discussion I was having; I won't bore you with the details other than to say that some people reacted as if they'd been grossly insulted. But let's try to talk "PC" for a while.
Before we do, let's get a few things straight: I'm a dedicated ST music software user and music software developer. I have ST MIDI software on the market, and my job involves, amongst other things, teaching music technology using ST computers. Perhaps my own prejudice is the reason for the paranoid introduction to this article. I have a terrible habit of assuming that, because I say I also develop software for Windows running on PCs, people are going to think that I'm screeching militant polemic through a megaphone on a PC's behalf. (I must see my psychiatrist...) I too used to loathe PCs with a vengeance, but not any more - at least, not as much.
The news is that the PC is now poised to shed its image as the poor man of technological music-making. The reason is Microsoft's Multimedia Windows. For those of you unfamiliar with all this, Microsoft Windows is a bit like the PC equivalent of the ST's GEM - the mouse, the windows, the menus - except streets ahead in looks, performance and facilities. Multimedia Windows, or the MPC Multimedia Extensions to Windows, to give it its proper name, represents a quantum leap in musicians' terms; firstly because it gives Windows an established standard MIDI support for the first time, and secondly because it is the first operating environment to support digital audio and CD-ROM directly, as part of its structure. The first fact alone is probably going to be responsible for an explosion in MIDI software running under Windows. At present the only Windows sequencer I'm aware of is Mastertracks Pro, but this situation is likely to alter soon. The support for digital audio and CD-ROM is remarkable, and may well precipitate a host of cheap yet musically-professional sampling boards specifically designed for use in conjunction with Windows software. So what is Multimedia Windows, and why has it come about?
The history of PCs in general and MS-Windows in particular has, until recently, been rather boring. Being based originally around a miserable processor capable of addressing only 1Mb of memory (which, to be fair, was quite a lot in those days), the PC sowed its own seeds of discontent at the very outset. The now all-pervasive DOS (Disk Operating System) allowed only 640K of this 1Mb memory to be used for actual programs, since the other 384K was taken up by the system itself. Things improved slightly with the introduction of expanded memory and the 80286 and 80386 processors, but the extra power of the new processors (the latter of which, incidentally, can address up to four gigabytes of memory) wasn't tapped because DOS still reigned supreme, and all the old DOS programs still had to have things run their way, so to speak. Around 1985, Microsoft introduced Windows and subsequently Windows 2.0 which, although a Graphical User Interface (GUI) like the ST's GEM, still suffered from the memory limitation because it was itself being run as a DOS program.
To us musicians, the three big limitations of the PC so far have been threefold; the cost of the add-on MIDI cards, lack of usable memory and the awful DOS user interface. Now I know this last point is a matter of opinion, but popularity of the GUIs on the Mac, ST and Amiga have borne it out. All these effects have in turn resulted in a dearth of good music software for the PC. There are some exceptions, however, and it's worth noting that PCs are used far more widely for music in the States than they are in Europe. But how many studios do you know of that are using Voyetra Plus or similar as their standard sequencer?
A MIDI card typically used to cost in the £150-200 range; it has now fallen below £100 in some cases but it's still an additional purchase, as it is for the Mac and the Amiga. The 640K memory limitation and the consequent difficulty in running more than one application (such as a sequencer and an editor) at the same time have left the Macintosh user laughing and the ST user (who has Desk Accessories and switcher programs like C-Lab's SoftLink) with at least a smile. The DOS TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident) utility is not in the running in this regard.
ENTER WINDOWS 3.0. Windows 3.0, apart from looking much sexier than its predecessor (it's a very serious Mac basher on the "look and feel" front alone), was a major breakthrough for the PC - arguably the most important development in the field since the introduction of the PC itself in 1981. Its arrival on the scene was crucial since, for the first time, it truly unleashed the power of the 80286 and '386 chips and all the memory they could use, whilst relegating DOS to a corner. It loads from DOS, but having done so, tells DOS to go and play with its toys.
Hence, I'm currently writing this article on my four megabyte 386 PC clone, and sitting just behind the word processor on the screen are a large painting/bitmap editing application, a hypertext application, a C compiler and a Windows application development system. And there's still some memory left. Now, if this means that I can expect, as a result of Multimedia Windows, to be able to run a powerful sequencer, a couple of synth editors, a sample editor and a patch librarian, all on the same screen, on my machine (which, incidentally, has an 800 by 600 resolution colour screen and a 100Mb hard disk), for a "today's-total" hardware cost of about £1500 including a MIDI interface, where does that leave my ST, let alone a Mac? And at the rate PC prices fall, how much lower is this cost going to be in a year's time? Of course, the Mac is a mature machine and there's a lot of terrific hardware and software for it. It's just that money talks, you know what I mean? And to all intents and musical purposes any differences in capability between a '386 PC running Multimedia Windows and a Mac are eventually going to become vanishingly small. Because there are so many millions of PCs the world over, the cost of memory, co-processors, hard drives, add-on modem cards/fax cards/Goblin Teasmade cards has long ago dropped through what you might think is the civilised ST or Mac floor for such prices. These considerations are becoming increasingly important in today's environments of big sequencers, direct-to-disk recording and so on.
Before you get too excited, Multimedia Windows has not yet (July) been officially released. But Passport Music Software, for example, is already preparing applications for it. Let's take a look at what all the fuss is about.
Multimedia Windows is really intended as the operating platform for a new type of PC called the "MPC", or Multimedia Personal Computer (see sidebar for an explanation of multimedia). The MPC is not a physically new type of PC but rather a sort of minimum specification that you must have in order to run Multimedia software. This typically consists, amongst other things, of the following:
At least a 80286 processor
At least 2Mb RAM
At least a 30Mb hard disk
MIDI ports (In and Out)
A built-in CD-ROM drive
An eight-bit digital audio sampling/playback card (monophonic)
The last three items can be treated as optional, but the idea is that multimedia software would need at least one or two of them to run. Hence there are millions of PCs the world over that, in terms of processor/memory/hard disk, already conform to the MPC standard because of the 80286/2Mb/30Mb HD minimum requirement.
Note that these are the minimum required. An 80486 processor with 16Mb RAM, 610Mb hard disk, dual CD-ROM, eight-port MIDI card, a Proteus 2XR card and a 32-voice 16-bit sampling card (the last three don't yet exist) would still be an MPC machine, and would do me rather nicely, thank you. Perhaps surprisingly, all this high-level support for hardware, which also includes moving colour video/television in a window, was not designed for musicians (the market is far too small). Although it clearly suits professional musical purposes down to the ground, the MPC standard is really geared towards turning PCs into Multimedia super-performers for the purposes of business presentations with fancy graphics, sound effects, educational courseware and so on. The smart computer money of the 1990s is supposed to be moving into the area of multimedia, and the MPC, which is being backed by at least 12 of the world's biggest computer corporations, is its first big bet.
There is a slight catch, however (there's always at least one). Initially, Microsoft are not going to be marketing the Multimedia Extensions to Windows as a separate item like Windows 3.0 itself; it will not be available as an upgrade to Windows 3.0. It will only be available, to start with, as something that comes with hardware (such as a digital audio card or a CD-ROM drive). This is because the hardware manufacturers are going to be licensing the Extensions from Microsoft to pass on with their hardware. Hopefully therefore, we will quickly and painlessly get to the situation where PC MIDI card manufacturers, such as Roland and Voyetra, will license and supply the Extensions with their equipment. I also know however, that Microsoft are going to be prepared to license the Extensions to independent software vendors as well, so that should help. Don't expect to get very far if you walk into your PC dealer and ask for Multimedia Windows, though.
So what is it going to do for you and me, the musician? Hopefully, like all the best machines, a talent for hiding itself (becoming transparent) as you're working with it. It seems to me, as I'm sure it does to any other self-respecting musician, that anybody who is interested in technology for the technology's sake alone is missing the point. Besides, all this talk is just hot air until we see some real, powerful applications that musicians can use. At the start of this article I covered myself by specifically making the point that I'm not spreading PC gospel; any sane musician will choose to ignore the wailing and gnashing of teeth that is always going on between the various machine "camps". I'm simply bringing tidings. The Mac isn't going to die. Neither is the ST. My guess is that, because of Multimedia Windows, the PC is about to become as serious and professional a music machine as these two, but at a price differential that's going to clout either of them, not just the Mac.