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Sight Reading

Dan Goldstein and Simon Trask take a break from reading their own work and examine a selection of new books aimed at helping you get more out of music technology.


Strange though it may seem, E&MM can't tell you all you want to know about music technology. Four new specialist books - of very different applications - have been published to fill in the gaps.

The four books under review here don't actually have much in common. Sure, they all set out to provide illumination on the subject of music technology beyond what the monthly magazines have the time, space or obligation to do. But during the course of this review spot, well be going from a general, academically-oriented history to a synth buyers' guide aimed very much at the consumer - with a couple of home computer tomes in between.

Books on the history of electronic music aren't exactly thick on the ground (Paul Griffiths' rather dry Guide to Electronic Music and Andy Mackay's glossy but thought-provoking Electronic Music are the only two that spring readily to mind), and books that combine this subject with a look at the development of computer music are an even rarer breed. Peter Manning's just-released epic, Electronic & Computer Music, published by Oxford University Press at just under £20, is therefore in a category of its own - though as we'll see, that isn't necessarily a good thing.

The author has been Senior Experimental Officer in Music (where do they get these titles from?) at Durham University since 1973, where he's been responsible for the development of electronic and computer music facilities.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Manning's book is stuck firmly in the academic arena. From its contents list it looks impressive and all-encompassing, but more detailed examination shows it to provide an incredibly shallow and oblique perspective on what is now an extremely complex and wide-ranging subject. Its strongest feature lies in the historical background it gives to current events, though that in itself doesn't compensate for the inadequate coverage of those events.

What we get on the historical front are sections covering the background to 1945, developments in Europe and America from 1945 to 1960, the voltage-controlled synthesiser, the electronic repertory from 1960, and the digital revolution.

The author is at his best covering developments up to 1960. There's some excellent stuff on Musique Concrete, the Cologne and Milan electronic music studios, and parallel developments in America.

'New Horizons in Electronic Design' discusses the voltage-controlled synthesiser, but this isn't the popular history of analogue synthesisers most modern musicians and composers are interested in reading. Instead, we're treated(?) to an abstract technical discussion of analogue-based synthesis - the only practical passages concern themselves with what Manning deems to be the 'serious' applications of analogue sound components.

The brief seven-and-a-half pages devoted to 'Rock and Pop Electronic Music' provide an ill-informed, incoherent whirlwind tour of the subject (the Griffiths book is no better) that doesn't progress any further than the mid-70s, and therefore falls well short of the era in which real technological innovation took place in music-making as a whole - not just in pop. And what is there includes some glaring errors, like the references to Yes keyboardist Rick Waterman (brother of Dennis?) and the crediting of Six Wives of Henry VIII to Yes rather than the aforementioned Wakeman/Waterman, presumably because extracts from it appeared on the Yessongs album. And how's this for a bit of meaningless, unabridged twaddle: 'Albums such as Atom Heart Mother, Meddle and The Dark Side of the Moon exhibit strong sociocultural characteristics in their integration of instrumental material with many environmental sounds such as the mooing of cows, footsteps, frying eggs and bacon...'. If he were dead, and there have been quite a few reports recently that he might be, Roger Waters would turn in his grave.

As for 'The Digital Revolution', it doesn't cover anything like the ground you might expect from such a grandiose title. Again, the emphasis is firmly on developments in the academic (or at least non-commercial) world. There's plenty of accurate, informative material here, particularly on the various MUSIC languages developed by Max Matthews and Barry Vercoe, and the digital synthesis systems that have developed from these. John Chowning's work in the development of FM synthesis is also covered, but there's no mention of Yamaha's role in making FM synthesis widely available to musicians of all styles throughout the world (in fact, there's no mention of Yamaha at all).

And remarkably for a book with academic aspirations, there's barely adequate consideration of IRCAM's contribution to the field, coupled with a pitifully brief mention for Britain's own EMAS (Electro-Acoustic Music Association), which for a number of years has done sterling work in supporting and promoting computer-generated and computer/acoustic music. In fact, there's precious little space given to any British composers or electronic music studios, so that while Jonathan Harvey gets a mention for his already-classic 'Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco' (all you FM bell-sound freaks should take note of that one, by the way), the equally inventive work of the likes of Denis Smalley doesn't get so much as a look-in.

Seminal computer musical instruments such as the Synclavier and Fairlight aren't exactly covered in depth, despite doing more to bring computer-generated music into the public eye than all the world's academic music studios put together. That's not to say Manning eschews high-priced hardware, though. The only instruments he describes that don't require you to take out a second mortgage are the now ageing Apple-based Syntauri and Soundchaser systems. You get the impression he's been locked in his digital music studio, PDP computer and all, for the past seven years. Either he isn't aware of what's happening in the world outside, or he doesn't consider it worth writing about. Whichever, he's making a big mistake.

For whilst it's true that a lot of the developments that made today's 'commercial' instruments possible occurred within an academic context, today's situation is the reverse: it's the commercial companies, whose R&D is funded from their own profits, who are making the great strides forward, while funding for academic institutions is becoming ever less certain in the current political climate. At one point, the author notes wistfully that 'many leading rock and pop groups now have access to synthesis facilities of the utmost sophistication, far greater than the resources available to more serious electronic composers'. Yet he doesn't seem able to confront these facilities and consider their strengths and weaknesses.

Glib, inconsistent, and dismally frustrating, Electronic & Computer Music doesn't only fail to put recent huge technological developments into perspective; it doesn't even cover its home ground of academic study with anything greater than token thoroughness. The fine degree of research that's gone into the book's ineptly-scattered sections means it'll probably find its way onto the reading lists of a thousand electronic music students. But the ultimate work on this subject has yet to be written.

Luckily, the next three books are a lot further down to earth in subject matter. Creative Sound for the BBC Microcomputer by David Ellis and Chris Jordan (and published by troubled Acornsoft) is one of several recently-published books aimed at giving home computer users the means of getting the best out of their machines' internal sound chips. Now, there aren't many of said sound chips that can stand up to even the simplest dedicated synthesiser, in terms of both sound quality and programming versatility, and the BBC's is by no means one of the most complex. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Creative Sound's authors have managed to come up with such a detailed, resourceful book.

Essentially, Ellis and Jordan have opted to illustrate their case by giving micro users a selection of music programs, intended to act both as building blocks for further custom programming and as useful, educational pieces in their own right. Thus, depending on what storage system you've got hooked-up to your Beeb, you get a cassette or a floppy disk (40- or 80-track) as part of the Creative Sound package.

In keeping with the fairly basic level at which most of Creative Sound's readers will be entering the field of computer music, the authors have pitched their style 2000 leagues away from Peter Manning's.

And there are a lot of subjects within the pages of Creative Sound, since Ellis and Jordan have resisted the temptation to confine their discussion specifically to home micros, and put each of their programs in technological context before describing them. Thus, we're treated to brief (though never oversimplified) dissertations on all manner of musical and technological subjects, from preset synthesisers to ADT, and from basic songwriting to the Fairlight CMI. Even if there weren't a load of well-written programs to illustrate these subjects on the BBC, Creative Sound would stand up as a worthwhile (and commendably friendly) educational text on its own.

Which is more than can be said for Gary Herman's Micro Music for the Commodore 64 and BBC Computer, published by the Papermac Computer Library. Like the Ellis and Jordan work, this one is aimed primarily at micro users who 'never knew there was so much in' the computer they bought from Laskys six months ago - at least not from a musical point of view. But unlike Creative Sound, Herman's book is aimed more at the previously-uninterested layman than the musician who's invested in a computer initially for non-musical reasons. Consequently, it's basic almost to the point of inadequacy, and its programs (which you have to key in yourself, as there's no disk or tape supplied) never get more ambitious than a sound effects generator and a simple guitar tutor.

Which is a pity, because Herman's style is just as friendly and accessible as Ellis' and Jordan's, and his technical knowledge seems just as comprehensive — if a little less wide-ranging. Thus, a lot of synth players are going to be bored silly by a good 50% of what lies within the pages of Micro Music, though there's no denying it fills a large, significant gap in the market, and fills it well. It's expensive, though, at £8.50, especially when the Ellis and Jordan offering represents only a slightly bigger dent in the wallet at £9.95.

But if there's a bit of healthy competition in the home micro book field, there's no rival whatsoever for Keyfax, a remarkable new book that's subtitled 'Julian Colbeck's Guide to Electronic Keyboards'. Basically, Keyfax sets out to provide a comprehensive, model-by-model guide to all the electronic keyboards currently available, along with a fair number that are now out of production but could conceivably be picked up secondhand. It doesn't confine itself to synths, because there are also sections on samplers, sequencers, home keyboards, and electric pianos - though sadly, nothing on programmable drum machines.

Fortunately, Julian Colbeck has probably been reviewing instruments of this type for longer than he cares to remember, in the pages of Sounds, so he's in a pretty good position from which to start compiling a guide such as this.

So compile it he has, and rather well, too. There are omissions, naturally, but what's here (and there are quite a few instruments nobody on the E&MM staff could remember, so the listing must be reasonably complete) is described with accuracy, objectivity, and no small degree of wit. If anything, Colbeck's biggest achievement is the way he's treated just about every machine under consideration (no matter what its background, age or price) in the same way. No double standards here.

There are problems in laying out a buyers' guide in this format, though. The Quality and Value ratings (a hangover from the Sounds pages) are arbitrary and likely to cause overgeneralisation more than anything else; and clearly, you can't say everything about everything when you've only got 200 words to do it in. But the real problem is simply one of progress. Recent synth introductions by Korg, Oberheim and Sequential have already made Keyfax out of date, which is a bit of a nuisance when, at the time of writing, it still hadn't reached booksellers' shelves.

But by and large, Keyfax is an enormous success, and it seems likely the three copies publishers Virgin Books sent E&MM will find use for some time to come as valuable - nay, indispensable - sources of reference material. A snip at £5.99.



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Latin Lessons

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Simmons' 9th


Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

 

Electronics & Music Maker - Aug 1985

Scanned by: Stewart Lawler

Previous article in this issue:

> Latin Lessons

Next article in this issue:

> Simmons' 9th


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