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The Advanced Music System

Software for Commodore 64

The addition of a MIDI module allows this software package for the Commodore computer to control external synthesizers amongst other things. Ian Waugh reports.


The ability to control both external instruments, via its new MIDI module, and the SID sound chip, make this Commodore version of Island Logic's program 'The Music System' (now handled by Rainbird Software) an even more attractive proposition to those musicians eager to discover the delights of computer music software. Ian Waugh reports.


You know a software company is on to a good thing when they start converting programs to run on other computers. No one this side of Andromeda can fail but to have heard of Island Logic's music program, The Music System, for the BBC B computer. The software was developed by System, a Sheffield-based software house and made its debut in 1984 although its roots went back to 1983.

It was a remarkable piece of software for two reasons. First, the program was controlled from a series of icon-driven menus which made it very easy to use and to understand.

The application of such features had previously been limited to 16-bit machines and The Music System was justifiably hailed as state of the art. Even if you weren't interested in making music with the thing, you could thrill to its programming techniques - and many people did.

Its second claim to a place in the annals of outstanding software was the fact that it actually did something useful! It was - and probably still is - the most sophisticated and complete music editing system ever devised for the BBC B computer - and probably superior to any available for other personal computers come to that.

So what has all this got to do with the Commodore version of TMS (as The Music System is generally known)? In a word - everything. It would have been fairly simple, comparatively speaking, to reproduce the features of the BBC's TMS on the Commodore - the quick and easy way to do a software conversion - but System decided to expand the program during the process, the end result being The Advanced Music System reviewed here. The most noticeable addition is the inclusion of a MIDI module but we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let's go back to square one and open the box.

OPENING UP



The first thing to pop out is a 94 page ring-bound User Manual which could equally be used for weight-training. You will also find a Quick Key Guide, a floppy disk and a piece of red plastic called a Lenslok. This is a rather clever software protection device. After booting the disk, a blot resembling a reject from a Rorschach test (the ink blots psychiatrists use to discover your innermost thoughts!) appears in the middle of the screen. With a little juggling and eye squinting through the Lenslok you should be able to make out a couple of characters which must then be entered on the keyboard before the program will run. It'sa bit of a nuisance but an easy way to prevent simple disk to disk copying. I wonder what happens if the dog chews your Lenslok: will they send you another one?

MODULES



So, with the dog firmly banished to another room, I entered the characters and reached the Control Screen. This shows six icons representing the six modules: the Editor, Keyboard, Linker, Printer, Synthesiser and MIDI modules. The icons are highlighted each in turn by pressing the SPACE bar and selected by pressing RETURN.

Although each module performs different tasks, where possible, the same computer keys are used throughout to perform the same kind of function. For example, the numeric keys, with and without SHIFT, are used to select active voices and toggle playback voices on and off in the Editor. They select active and record voices in the Keyboard and active playback tracks and record voice tracks in the MIDI module. In addition, the Q and W keys are commonly used to change values, SPACE to select options and the RETURN key to confirm selections.

With the rather daunting prospect of coming to grips with over one hundred operations, TMS is remarkably easy to use. The handy Quick Key Guide is invaluable at first but you will soon be able to do without its help apart from the occasional need to remind yourself of a little-used option.

Another feature common to all modules is the Command Line which runs across the top of the screen and lists four pop-up menus. These are Files, Values, Commands and Info and they are called by pressing the function keys. Again, the contents of these menus varies from module to module but they each display a similar type of information.

Files controls the saving and loading of files as you would expect. Values presents information which can be changed such as octave number, voice selection, volume and tempo, etc. Commands lists the functions or operations available within that module such as delete track, set markers, accent music, check bar lines, swap envelopes and copy filter. The Commands menu is also where you set macros and access the notepad, more of which in a moment. Info supplies information about the composition: the files in use, free memory space and the size of individual voices. These are for information purposes only and cannot be altered.

EDITOR



Probably the most important module is the Editor, described as providing all the facilities of a wordprocessor; writing, displaying and editing music rather than words. Where have you heard that before? No mere copywriter's flight of fancy this, though. System's claims for the program are all honest, decent, legal (I think) and truthful. Yes, this is computer software we're talking about, strange though it may seem.

Back with the Editor; the screen consists of a Voice Monitor Window (VMW) showing a treble and bass clef upon which the notes are entered. A bar meter at the top left indicates the overall length of each voice relative to the others. Other information on screen is the current bar number, volume level, envelope number, note name and octave number.

The VMW only shows one voice at a time but a press of a key will flip you from voice to voice, the bars remaining aligned. The pitch of a note is altered by moving it up and down the stave with the 'up' arrow and '=' keys, while Q and W determine note duration. So far so good but look at some of the other features offered such as slow and fast scrolling backwards and forwards and the ability to jump to the start or end of a voice. All note accidentals are available including double sharps and flats and notes can be tied and turned into triplets. Bar lines can be inserted manually or automatically and you can insert repeat bars and first and second time bars, too. Notes can also be inserted anywhere in the score and deleted just as easily. And that's just for starters!

Once you get into the swing of things - which won't take long if you can read music and only a little longer if you can't - you will begin to use the markers and macro commands. Markers are positioned in the music to define a section of notes which can then be acted on as a group. For example, they can all be transposed by the same amount or their volume levels or envelopes can be made the same. Notes in between markers can be saved to the notepad. This is a separate note storage area limited only by the total number of notes already in memory. The notepad can be saved and loaded so you can merge tunes or bits of tunes and transfer parts of one voice to another voice.

Yet another feature is the ability to define loop sections. Up to 20 different loops can be defined in each voice. You can, for example, programme a number of repetitive rhythm tracks or sequences and select any one to repeat while a non-looping voice plays through. In fact, you can set all three voices to loop in which case the tune will repeat until stopped. You can set up interesting rhythm effects and produce semicomputer compositions by creating a different loop section in each voice: voice one having, say, five beats, voice two having seven beats and voice three having eight. The resulting pattern would then repeat only after playing through 280 times.

Fascinating stuff - ideal for Steve Reich style compositions. It took me a while to locate the window displaying the Loop Sections, however, as the manual tells you how to do this five pages after describing the looping procedure.


Well, that's the bones of the Editor module and quite a lot to take in at once. The manual does, however, give you a quick quide to entering and playing notes so you don't have to wade through all 94 pages before you get going. As you work, if you find yourself doing something the long way, eg. deleting a section of notes one at a time, then it may be time to have a quick browse through the manual again as there is probably a facility there to make your job a little easier.

KEYBOARD



If you area bit of a wizard on the keys then the Keyboard module may be for you. I must confess, I can find better ways to spend my time than trying to enter 'Flight Of The Bumble Bee' in real-time from the Commodore's typewriter keyboard. QWERTY keys were never designed to be used as a musical instrument and musical input in this way is very difficult, time consuming and unpredictable. Having said all that, I know lots of people who like to dabble on the keys and at least the Keyboard module has all the facilities to make a hard task easier.

The three voices are entered monophonically, one at a time. The barmeters are there as in the Editor module and you can call up the Voice Monitor Window to see what you've been playing. Envelopes and volume levels can be altered, you can shift the keyboard's range over three octaves and pause the recording. If you want to practice a part before committing it to digital memory, then select the Tinkle Mode, but to old hands this will be water under the bridge.

Music and sound files can be loaded although only music files can be saved from here. They can be loaded back into the Editor so you can work on them in more detail. The manual points out that anything other than simple tunes can result in untidy compositions - and you better believe it. However, a facility exists in the Editor called block tidy which attempts to convert all single rests between markers to notes and tie them to the previous note. What will they think of next?


SYNTHESISER



The Commodore's internal sound generator (SID) is not the easiest chip to programme and if you think a buzz or a beep little reward for an hour's PEEKing and POKEing then the Synthesiser module is for you. If you are still struggling with the concepts of ADSR envelopes and high- and low-pass filters, there are numerous graphic displays here as well as numeric readouts to aid understanding. Just to get you going, there is also a quick guide to creating sounds.

One of the dozens of thoughtful features is the ability to load and then play a music file as you alter individual envelope parameters. A window called the Dynamic Envelope Device (DED) monitors the envelopes that play with each note of the tune.

An envelope definition includes waveform and filter controls as well as ADSR parameters which makes life very easy. Each note can be assigned one of 15 different envelopes so you can see the scope for tonal variation within a piece. Not content with providing such easy access to SID, the software writers, System, have included a few extras of their own. For instance, there are two independent Dynamic Response Envelopes (DRE) which are used to modulate the frequency and/or pulse width and the filter frequency of the voices. Unlike traditional SID chip programming, this allows you to modulate all three voices at the same time and the envelopes produced using the Synthesiser can be saved and loaded into other modules as sound files.

MIDI



The MIDI module provides a software interface between TMS and the outside world. An actual hardware MIDI interface is also required and the program works with both SIEL and Passport interfaces. Others may work too, but this is not guaranteed.

What this module gives you is basically a 6-track real-time sequencer. The VMW will display music as it is played and barmeters (here called the Track Meter Device) monitor the memory situation. The program seems to accept most performance information but if you use pitch-bend it cuts off any following data. Hardly a major disaster but a strange bug to slip past the boys at System.

Disappointingly, the module does not have explicit channel assignment, ie. it plays back through the channel on which it was recorded, and all recording and playback is from the start of a track. It cannot really be compared to a dedicated MIDI package and I don't think it was intended to compete with such programs. What it does do is furnish the opportunity to experiment with MIDI and it offers lots of interesting little pluses along the way. For example, you can convert music files to MIDI files to play through an external MIDI synth. You can reverse the process too, and convert MIDI files to music files to play through SID. Of course, the piece is reduced to three monophonic lines and performance data is lost but what would SID do with all that information, anyway?

If you prefer to enter music in real-time and haven't yet managed to record anything worthwhile on the QWERTY keys without swearing, you can do so via a MIDI keyboard.

The resulting files can be loaded into the Editor and edited and merged as normal music files. You can also obtain a printout of your doodling with the Printer, a facility not available on all MIDI packages.

PRINTER



The Printer module supports five printers: Epson FX-80, RX-80, MX-80 F/T, Star Delta 10, CBM MPS801 and 802. It also supports output to the User Port or the Serial Port for those of us with printer interfaces of various kinds.

You can adjust the print format so that the bars in each voice are aligned or not and you can add lyrics to the piece if you wish. Apart from the satisfaction of seeing a hard copy of your work, it can often be a convenient reminder of the piece if you come back to it at a later date.

LINKER



The last module is the Linker which allows you to bring together several music files for continuous play. It is also the only way to implement a tempo change. Up to 26 different files can be loaded, memory permitting, and arranged in a sequence containing up to 99 items. The total composition can then be saved as one file but it cannot, unfortunately, then be made to play through the MIDI module.

CONCLUSION



That, in a nutshell, is The Advanced Music System from Rainbird Software. In spite of its daunting length, the manual is easy to read with an excellent index and full of helpful diagrams. The disk contains lots of demo tunes - turn it over and you'll find more on the other side - so you have plenty of examples to play, look at and study. The Advanced Music System really is the ultimate Commodore music program. It's easy to use and it's fun. To make the most of making music on your computer - this is the one, it certainly is.

The Advanced MusicSystem containing all the modules described above retails for £39.95 and is available only on disk. A smaller version containing only the Editor, Keyboard and Synthesiser modules is available for £17.95 on disk and £14.95 on cassette.

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Jan 1986

Review by Ian Waugh

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