The Barry Box
Not quite a name, not quite a musical instrument, but a useful tool for sampling and investigating sound with the help of a BBC B computer, a couple of controls, and some friendly advice from Uncle Ian Waugh.
WHY A BARRY Box? Why not a Dan Box or an Ian Box or even a Trish Box? Well, if you were called Barry and invented a sampler for the BBC computer, what would you call it? Besides, "Barry Box" has a nice line in alliteration.
The Barry Box isn't a conventional record-a-sound-and-play-a-tune-with-it sampler, rather it's more concerned with the sample and what you can do with it. A sound-processing unit, as it says in the manual.
For your money you get a black box with "Barry" written on it which plugs into the computer's 1MHz bus, an EPROM, a microphone and a power cable which connects to the Beeb's power supply. The current version is not compatible with the Master (thanks to Acorn's inevitable neglect to maintain upward compatibility on the 1MHz bus), but a Master-compatible version should be ready by the Spring.
The Barry Box is quickly demonstrated by recording your voice, so we'll try doing that. The screen display, activated by the EPROM, shows buffer start and end positions, sample time, step size, start frequency, frequency step and number of points. It's worth running through these to see what they do.
The buffer is where the sample is stored, and by adjusting the start and end points you can edit the sound. This is the only simple editing you can perform on the sample; you can't chop bits out of the middle and there's no automatic looping facility, although a sample can be made to repeat through software.
The sample time is the time interval during which the Box samples or plays back a sound. It can be varied from 1.5 to 40kHz.
The step size is used when drawing the waveform and determines how much of the wave will be displayed.
The start frequency, frequency step and number of points are used during fourier analysis. The Box can analyse and plot the frequencies of a sample.
You can step through all the above parameters and alter them, and pressing Escape reinitialises the variables. The triggering, playing, loading, saving and drawing of samples is initiated with the function keys. Sounds can be saved to sideways RAM, too, and this will be a boon if suitably developed on the Master version.
Samples can be played backwards - always good for a laugh - and two options attempt to smooth out the sound, one harmonically and the other amplitudinally. The various graphs can be dumped to an Epson printer, and the variables used in the program can be edited.
This brings us to a rather special aspect of the Barry Box: it is very easy to write your own programs, in both BASIC and assembler, to make it do all sorts of things. Several examples are included with the documentation, although there is no demo disk - which is a shame. However, BML kindly sent me a demo disk (they know how lazy reviewers are) that contained some super examples which I know all users would benefit from.
In a program, Barry Box commands are issued by *BAR followed by a number or a letter. There are four very short examples in the manual. The first waits for a loud enough sound, records it, plays it forwards and then plays it backwards. The second records a sound, then plays it back at different speeds. The third produces your regular n-n-n-nineteen, and the fourth tells you to press a numeric key and tells you off (add your own expletives) if you don't press the right one. Simple examples, but you can see what it can do.
Other sample (ha-ha) programs sent to me by Barry during the review included a program to indicate distortion, one to produce a true echo effect rather than the stuttering n-n-n-nineteen, and one to produce a musical scale from a sample.
In case you're wondering where the sound comes from, it comes from the Beeb's internal speaker. The Box has an external output if you want to feed to your hi-fi, but the sound is surprisingly clear and distinct even from the Beeb's tiny speaker.
Since its launch last year, the Barry Box has undergone several enhancements. It now has an auxiliary input which bypasses the microphone input's preamplification circuitry for super-clean sampling.
And new software includes a tuning fork feature which produces a sine wave at a specified frequency. It will also measure the frequency of a sound in the buffer and perform automatic frequency measurements on incoming sounds to an accuracy of around 0.1Hz.
The Barry Box has already found a use in many scientific establishments, and is being used to analyse insect songs, monitor pump vibrations and measure frequencies to check guitar fret alignments. Bet you can't do that with your Roland, Ensoniq, Akai or Audi Quattro...
If you like experimenting with sounds - and particularly if you're interested in programming and bending a sample to your every whim - then the Barry Box could have been made for you. It's not a musical instrument (and it doesn't pretend to be), but it could find itself a lot of applications inside and outside the studio.
Price Barry Box, £79.95 including VAT and p&p
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Review by Ian Waugh
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