Technical Questions Answered by Vic Lennard
Q As a drummer and subscriber to both Rhythm and MT, I require some help and information regarding computers and their use in writing and composing music.
Having just completed a course in computer literacy using IBM-compatible machines, I have overcome my initial phobia and am now very keen to realise the benefits that they can probably offer in composition. What make of computer should I use? What other hardware is necessary? What software packages and how much? What does all the jargon mean? Are there any books on the subject?
When choosing a computer it would also be ideal if I could use the same machine for word processing. Are the 'music' computers IBM-compatible or can you obtain WordPerfect V5.1 software to run on these machines?
At present, the furthest I have delved into electronics is via my Roland R-8 drum machine!
A Starting with which computer to use, my normal advice to people who are working to a budget is to make full use of what they already own - as sequencing programs exist for most computers. There is no such thing as a 'music computer' - any computer can be used for music as long as it has a MIDI interface which is sometimes built in, as with the Atari ST, or provided via an internal card or external box. If you are starting from scratch, you need to look at what other use you want to make of the computer, a question which, effectively, you have answered yourself.
Where the PC is concerned, there are two types of software, namely those that run under MS-DOS, the standard PC operating system, and those that require the Windows environment (an extra program) which is used to vastly enhance the visual side of programs. The Sequencer Bible published in last month's Music Technology gives you information on all of the sequencers, including the system they run under.
Sequencers running under Windows invariably require more memory (2 Mbyte or more) and an advanced processor (386 or better) while DOS applications can run in 512 or 640 Kbytes of memory and happily on a 286-based PC. You need to consider the prices of the various PC systems before deciding on a DOS or Windows sequencer. However, the visual side of notation and other editing screens invariably means that they are better catered for in a Windows program. If you want to work with notation, you are probably going to have to buy a 386-based PC with Windows. It's also worth noting that the latest version of Windows can handle digitised sound, an area you may wish to get involved in at a future date.
PCs do not have in-built MIDI sockets and so require a MIDI card which usually plugs into one of the slots on the rear panel. The cost of such a card depends on the facilities offered. For instance, a basic 1 MIDI In, 1 MIDI Out card starts from around £60 while one with multiple MIDI Ins and Outs - along with a time code generator for synchronising to a tape recorder - can cost £300 and more. You don't mention in your letter whether you have any sound modules or not. If you don't, you could consider the SoundBlaster card which has a basic synth on-board, or even the Roland SCC-1 which is a Sound Canvas on a card. Both of these include the necessary MIDI sockets.
What does all the jargon mean? Good question and one which Music Technology is currently addressing (at least, in part) through our MIDI By Example series. On the books front, there are various good titles available. If anyone needs a booklist of such titles, please drop me a line at UKMA, (Contact Details) with a stamp-addressed A4 envelope and I'll send you a list free of charge.
By the way, be careful which MIDI Merger you buy. If you are using a pair of Roland keyboards, the chances are that a MIDI message called Active Sensing is being transmitted by each of these and you need to make sure that the MIDI Merger ignores these as combining them could lead to audible delays. The 2M by Philip Rees ((Contact Details)) will certainly do the job.
Feedback by Vic Lennard
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