More Atari news and tips from Martin Russ.
The sound facilities on the original ST were provided by a Yamaha chip that handled several tasks at once: parallel port; disk drive side selector buffer; and sound generation. The sound generation was very much in the 'beep' style of 8-bit computers, and was perhaps the weakest point of the machine. STEs featured DMA sound, which provided the sort of 8-bit sample-sound output that had become available via hardware add-ons for STs. DMA sound was an enormous improvement, and opened the way to music programs that could use external MIDI and internal samples as sound sources, as well as sample editors that could provide a preview of the edited sample without the tedium of transferring it to a sampler via MIDI Sample Dump Standard packets.
The latest ST, the Falcon, reportedly takes things a stage further and uses a DSP chip to produce its sound. Digital Signal Processing (DSP) chips have been around for about 10 years, and they are basically microprocessors which have been optimised for dealing with audio signals instead of just computer data. Unlike most processors, where you need an external maths co-processor to do multiplication efficiently, and where the processor is continually swapping between data and program bytes, DSPs have fast on-board multipliers, and separate the data from the program. This parallelism results in enormous processing power, and enables DSPs to do very complex processing of audio signals virtually in real time.
With all this power, you might think that DSPs would be expensive, but actually their versatility and wide range of applications in digital audio equipment mean that the price of DSP chips has come down to the sort of price at which putting a less powerful chip into a computer does not save any money. Chips cost less the more popular they are, so a best-seller gets cheaper and cheaper as more are sold. DSP chips first appeared in expensive and exclusive professional work-stations like the NeXT cube, so their adoption by Atari for their next generation of computers shows that the DSP has finally arrived in the consumer market. For ST users, the inclusion of a DSP means that the sound generating and processing capability of a Falcon will be considerable — perhaps comparable to some of the plug-in digital audio cards for the Mac and PC.
Much of the ST software that might once have appeared as budget games titles, or perhaps even Public Domain, is now released as shareware. The cynical might blame this on the recession, since it might be seen as a way of making money, but it is also possible to view it as a demonstration of the success of the whole concept of letting people send a payment only if they like the product. Honesty and altruism are often thought to be features of the past, and definitely not present in today's harsh and unforgiving world. It is refreshing to see that some things are getting better.
One thing which is definitely getting better is Henry Cosh's excellent Accompanist sequencer (see screen below). Inspired by an article by David Mellor in the October 1988 issue of Sound On Sound, this program has extended the basic ideas into a sophisticated sequencer which comes in a Public Domain form (version 2.4) and a registered shareware version (currently version 7.51; registration is a mere £10). Most PD sequencers are rather limited in their functionality, but Accompanist is probably good enough to rival commercial versions costing quite a lot of money.
Accompanist is a 16-track sequencer, with a separate conductor track for global control of the tracks. It uses Standard MIDI Files as its file format, which should make it compatible with most other popular sequencers. Its user interface is neat and consistent (it works with mono and colour displays), with a particularly good implementation of a zooming grid display, and easy-to-use parameter change by dragging values with the mouse — not the sort of thing you associate with a low-cost product at all.
Perhaps the only non-professional weakness is that Accompanist does not really permit editing in real time — you stop it, edit the music, and then set it playing again. This is a small price to pay for the depth and detail of the other features that are on offer.
Version 2.4 is the PD release. It can record several tracks at once, with filtering of events, and even sync to an external MIDI clock. It has block copying and moving functions, and comes with over 470k of music in the form of MIDI Files. Version 7.51 (shareware) has some features that even expensive professional products lack:
• It offers comprehensive personal customisation via a text file.
• It has on-line hypertext help — if you want to know about anything in a dialogue box, you click on the help button and the help pages appear, with linked entries describing the workings of all the major features. For more general enquiries, the Help menu lets you access the help pages directly.
• It enables you to do unusual things like replacing ordinary control change messages like program changes or pitch bend, with custom system exclusive messages.
• It can successfully load MIDI Files which have only been partially saved (for example, to an almost full disk) — a real life-saver!
I was involved in the early beta testing of Accompanist, and have watched it mature into a very creditable product. The large number of updates and documented bug fixes is ample evidence that this is a well-supported program — how many commercial programs reach version 7.51, or tell you what the bugs were in previous version? If you don't like the sound of paying more than the cost of the ST for a piece of software to run on it, then Accompanist gives you a chance to afford some more hardware whilst still having a powerful computer sequencer. At the risk of upsetting the producers of expensive 'professional' sequencers, I must say that I am continually surprised by the number of people I talk to who have a sophisticated £500 sequencer connected to a simple MIDI expander costing less than £200 pounds — and if you add in the cost of the ST, then the 'computing-to-music-equipment' ratio gets rather silly.
Henry Cosh's Accompanist V2.4 is disk SO86 in the SOS Software pages.
Feature by Martin Russ
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