Sequential's new package and ATPL's keyboard for the BBC micro.
Although most add-on keyboards for micros are boringly similar, the quality of the software makes a huge difference. In the case of Sequential's Music Mate for the CBM64, and the ATPL Symphony for the BBC, the software available definitely defines the quality of the products.
Considering the £105 Music Mate first, you might be forgiven for thinking that the three-octave full-sized plastic-cased keyboard is more of a toy than a real instrument. The impression is reinforced by the language of the manual, which is clearly intended for young users. But fear not — the keyboard, which plugs into the 64's joystick port leaving the cartridge port free (but for what?), is well-made and playable.
The software — disk only (£34.95 per pack) — has three main sections, a graphic keyboard display, a sound preset table and a parameter display. The eight presets are quite good, with a selection of bass, piano, flute and soon. Using the function keys you can modify the attack, release, filter strength, volume and white noise level to get a number of interesting effects. All the sounds are polyphonic — you can't go mono and use one voice to provide modulation.
There's a simple keyboard recorder option which will record your performance (up to 10 minutes) and play it back endlessly with a moving dot display on the graphic keyboard, though it can't be saved.
Overall, a simple and straightforward package, but not enough to interest the serious computer musician. The Music Mate keyboard really takes off when it's used with the additional software disks available from Sequential, some of which are frankly excellent.
Sound Maker gives you a modern-looking screen display with "knobs", "switches" and "indicators" which let you control all the parameters of the SID chip. As 64 owners will know, these include ADSR, filter type and level, waveshape, sync, ringmod, and so on, so some powerful sounds can be built up. Having set up the sounds you want, you can play them back on the keyboard or save them to use with the compositional packages.
Song Builder allows you to retrieve these sounds from disk, play your compositions against a metronome beat, and store up to sixteen three-part Song Sections. Any Section can be transposed when they're chained to make a song, and since each section can use different sounds, tempo and volumes, impressive arrangements can be built up. The final pieces can be stored, then edited using the Song Editor package.
Song Editor can store five songs per disk, and displays scores in conventional musical notation, which can be edited.
Song Printer, the final package, allows you to print out these scores using a suitable Commodore or compatible printer.
In total, the Music Mate keyboard and software packages cover just about everything you'd want to do using the 64's SID chip, but there are obvious disadvantages. There's no way to sync via MIDI or any other method to other instruments, and you can't get all the software on one disk. If it wasn't for the useful Music Mate keyboard itself, the Sequential system couldn't compete with the cheaper Island Logic Music System, which has MIDI capability but no compatible simple keyboard.
The ATPL keyboard for the BBC costs £125, and comes with unadventurous but adequate software. It's a sturdy four-octave full-size device with a jack socket for an optional sustain pedal, and a standard ribbon cable connecting to the BBC's user port. The cassette or disk software offers the possibility of playing the keyboard, loading or saving sound files, altering the sounds or cataloguing the disk or tape.
The 100 sounds, a mixture of instrumental and special effects, are unremarkable, and are accessed in banks using SHIFT and the function keys. All the envelope parameters are displayed, and can be edited, and you can switch from poly to monophonic and set up percussion sounds on the numerical keys. There's no provision for recording compositions.
This is all very well as far as it goes, but the Symphony keyboard only really comes into its own when it's used with the Acorn Music 500 system, reviewed in the February issue. This digital synthesiser package from Hybrid Technology will eventually have its own keyboard, but ATPL has worked with Hybrid to make sure the products are compatible. The extra software needed to interface the Symphony keyboard with Music 500's AMPLE language comes on a separate disk, and allows you to use all the 500's facilities of eight-note polyphony, stereo placement, user-defined envelopes, waveshapes, and joystick control of parameters in real time. It's only in conjunction with the 500 that the Symphony keyboard can be regarded as a real musical instrument, so meditate long and hard on the cost of the full system.
Products: Sequential Music Mate/ATPL Symphony Keyboards Prices: £105 & £125
ATPL, (Contact Details)
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Review by Chris Jenkins
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