Atari ST Software
In a completely different vein to Cubase, MusiCal is a music learning program aimed primarily at the educational market. Ian Waugh goes back to school.
Is music technology being treated fairly in the classroom? What role does educational software have to play? Does Steinberg's MusiCal fit the bill?
THE ATARI ST may be the musician's computer but it hasn't yet made much of a dent in the education market. There are many reasons why this is so - lack of money, politics and poorly informed IT advisers to name a few. (But this isn't the place to discuss why the youth of our country is not getting the musical education it deserves.) One other reason, however, could just be the severe shortage of educational music software for the ST. In this area, Acorn's veteran BBC micro still reigns supreme.
Realising the advantages in gaining a foothold in education, Evenlode have done their best to infiltrate the educational market, not least by preparing an educational version of Pro24 called Pro24e. This is basically the standard Pro24 program with a few "introduction to the ST" programs and more documentation - but cheaper! While sequencers are damn useful beasts to have around, they are not musically educational in themselves. That is, they don't teach you about sound or how to listen to sounds or music. Once you do have some musical experience and can put together a bar or two of music, then's the time to dig out the sequencer.
And so to MusiCal. As it is one of the very few music education programs available it deserves a close look.
The manual states, "MusiCal is a major development in the trend towards a 'concept-based curriculum' for music education". It also describes MusiCal itself as a complete curriculum, which is rather an ambitious claim.
The package consists of a large A4 ring-binder, a program disk and the dreaded dongle. This is the first potential stumbling block for educational users. Basically, if something isn't nailed down it -has a tendency to walk. If you don't use the dongle the programs just don't load. They really ought to give you a message telling you to insert the dongle - after switching off, of course.
THERE ARE ACTUALLY five separate programs on the disk and although a MIDI instrument isn't essential for them all, it can be useful. You'll need a hi-res monitor, too.
Each of the five programs supports a work Unit which relates to the three criteria of the new GCSE in Music - listening, performing and composing.
Unit one explores how sounds are put together to make a composition. The accompanying program uses home-spun graphic notation. It invites you to draw a squiggle in boxes on the screen and record something "in the box' by clicking on an on-screen keyboard or playing an attached MIDI keyboard.
During drawing, the words "Drawing", "Erase" and "Finish" appear on screen. The latter two are buttons but there's nothing to distinguish them from the Drawing word which does nothing when you click on it.
As you are recording pitches rather than raw sound, the exercise is more one of relating pitch patterns to a graphic design - a rising line could indicate a rise in pitch and so on. You can record four different pattems and string eight together to create a score. The recorder offers no means of keeping time.
The screen is fairly empty but you have to access the record and play functions from a pull-down menu. Why not have these as buttons on the screen? If you move the mouse to the top of the screen during record you are subsequently unable to click on the Stop button and have to press a computer key.
Unit two is called Notes and introduces pupils to the delights of envelope shapes. The program draws sine waves of different frequencies on screen under a selection of five ADSR envelope outlines. You play the resulting note by clicking on the on-screen keyboard. The practical work covers rounds, canons, consonance and dissonance, pitched and unpitched sounds and the three elements of a note - frequency, loudness and timbre (what about duration?).
"There are actually five separate programs on the MusiCal disk, and although a MIDI instrument isn't essential for them all, it can be useful."
Although I accept that the envelopes and waveforms may be there for illustration rather than elucidation, the number of wave cycles under the envelopes do not match the frequency of the notes. For example, playing middle C (261.37Hz) with an envelope which lasts a second will only produce about seven wave cycles. In fact the display doesn't alter at all when you change the length of a note, although it does when you change the frequency.
So few waveforms are drawn that it's necessary to draw the envelope outline over the top. If the number of cycles was correct, the shape of the envelope would be clear and an outline would not be necessary. Also, you hear a square wave (as per the ST's sound chip) but the program draws a sine wave. OK, a minor point but if you're trying to relate what you see on screen to what you hear, surely it ought to be accurate?
Unit three is about tuning. The program uses the ST's sound chip to play two notes with different pitches and you have to tune the second to the first by moving an on-screen slider. When two notes of different pitches sound, beats are produced and it's not too demanding a task to tune up until the beating stops.
How does the slider work? Well, I expected to be able to click and drag it and hear the pitch change as it moved. Not so. You don't hear the pitch until you release the button. It's a bit like jumping towards the edge of a cliff and then looking down to see if you've overshot.
Alternatively, you can click on the top and bottom of the slider. This increments the pitch continuously which means you're likely to overshoot the mark anyway and then have to backtrack. However, if you use the help function it virtually tunes the pitch for you.
Unit four introduces the pentatonic scale and traditional music notation. It allows you to compose music by clicking notes onto the stave. Music will play through the ST's speaker or a MIDI instrument and the score can be printed out.
The manual discusses song form - AABA and so on - tones, semitones, scales and time signatures. It also includes suggestions for a more advanced composition using a group of six or eight semitones.
From there it broaches the subject of sequencers and informs you that, using the Convert program on the disk, you can load a Pent fiie into Pro24 (plug).
Unit five is about rhythm and the final program lets you create drum patterns on three staves using three drum sounds. There are a number of small rhythmic motifs on screen which you click and drag to the staves. If you hold the right button you can repeat the pattern.
The ST's sound chip does a reasonable drum imitation - given its limitations - or you can connect a MIDI-compatible drum machine. To match the sounds to a drum machine you have to give each a MIDI channel and note number. For your average musician with drum machine manual at hand this will present no problem. In the classroom, however, manuals are not always available and the program expects the teacher to know what MIDI channels and note numbers are. Some will, many won't. An easier method perhaps, certainly for school use, would be to scroll through the values until you hear the drum sound you want.
THE MANUAL IS generally well written and presented, easy to read and assimilate. It includes a suggested list of records to listen to and it has a superb bibliography.
"While sequencers are useful beasts to have around, they're not educational in themselves - they don't teach you about sound or how to listen to music."
Activities are divided into sections such as Did You Know?, Useful Tips, Try This, Listen, Discuss and Group Work. Some require the use of a tape recorder, a keyboard and a sampler, which not every school will have access to.
Music notation does not become necessary until you reach Unit four. The manual says, 'The most important reason for writing music down is so that we can remember it! If the composer is not going to be the only performer then it must be written down in a form that others can easily understand'.
Other Units explore some alternative forms of notation, and one suggests constructing a piece from patterns - circles, crosses and triangles - on a grid. Many modern - and not-so-modern - composers are well aware of the limitations of traditional music notation.
One example in the manual represents the opening of Beethoven's 5th Symphony on a grid. The first box contains three vertical lines, the next three contain one long horizontal line. "Beethoven didn't write the original like this", informs the manual, "but you will find that this version is very easy to follow". To which the cynic may be inclined to reply, "Yes, of course it is - but only if you know what the music is supposed to sound like in the first place".
There's nothing to suggest how MusiCal fits into age groups and classroom practice. Many of the activities seem to be aimed at seven and eight year olds, although it purports to teach up to GCSE level (age 14 to 16). Some ideas are definitely for older children, although it is by no means a complete tutorial up to GCSE standard. Perhaps is it is intended for use across a wide range of ages.
Although the manual is well presented, little of the text is original and it uses all the standard GCSE musical ideas and examples. Most music teachers will already be familiar with the material.
YOU'VE PROBABLY REALISED by now that I'm not over-impressed with MusiCal. The programs are trivial and not particularly well-designed for classroom use. They have little relevance to the text, although in any event the majority of the work would be done away from the computer using other resources.
My final reservation concerns the price. It's on the cheap side of average for a piece of music software, but it's expensive if you're on an education budget. The software alone can in no way justify the price tag; any value the package has lies in the manual. If used by an intelligent teacher, the manual could be used very effectively - but the same ideas are available in books costing a tenth of the price.
There is also an optional Update Subscription Fee of £25 plus VAT, yet an Evenlode press release dated 19th September 1988 states that the only Steinberg products to attract an update fee are Pro24 and Masterscore. As the average total price of educational software is probably around £15-20 this is likely to be as appealing to teachers as Kenneth Baker's education policy.
The dedication and effort which went into the creation of the package is enormous, and it's a genuine shame to find that the whole is rather less than the sum of the parts.
MusiCal is the first in a three-volume set. The other two volumes are due in Spring and Autumn 1989. Their content is rather more ambitious, but it will be interesting to see whether the packages contain any useful programs to support the manuals and justify their price.
MusiCal does nothing to refute many a music teachers' staunchly-held view that computers in general and the Atari ST in particular have no place in their lessons. It gives a bad name to the useful musical and educational things a computer can do and it can only hamper the acceptance of computers in the music curriculum. It could well shove the Atari ST further out in the educational cold than it already is...
Price £99.00 plus VAT