The Music System
The Music System (TMS) is a software package developed by Island Logic (Island as in the record company, Logic as in NAND gate) in a joint venture with disk and tape manufacturers Memorex. TMS is used to enter, edit, store and print out music played on the BBC micro's internal sound chip, and also allows the sound synthesis capability of the said chip to be exploited to the full.
TMS is available in both disk and cassette versions, and the disk version reviewed here is supplied on a dual standard 40/80-track 'System' disk and comes with a 'Song and Sound Library' disk containing numerous examples. To use TMS, you simply insert the system disk in Drive 0 and do a SHIFT-BREAK boot. If you use 80-track disks, you'll have to use a utility supplied with TMS to copy the library files onto an 80-track. Boot the library disk for instructions.
The disks come in a video-tape sized case with a 75-page manual and a function key definition strip. As soon as you see the artwork on the outside of the case, you begin to realise that TMS is no run-of-the-mill production. This impression is confirmed by the quality and content of the manual, which is not only extremely comprehensive but also beautifully laid out on quality paper - no faded two-page photocopies here! The text is well written, helpful, and supported by a wealth of diagrams that relate the instructions in the manual to what you will actually see on the BBC's screen.
After booting the system disk and viewing a suitably vitriolic copyright message for a few seconds, you're presented with the main control screen. This displays five icons (easily remembered symbols) representing the five modules that make up TMS, these being the Editor, Keyboard, Linker, Printer and Synthesiser. Pressing the space bar causes each icon to be highlighted in turn: pressing the return key brings the highlighted module into play.
The Editor allows you to edit the musical score for each of the BBC micro's four (three pitch and one noise) sound channels. Each channel is edited individually, but you can switch between the scores with ease if you want to check that chords are lining up correctly. Pitch, volume and envelope are easily selected for each note, and bar lines are inserted automatically according to the time signature. Key signature can be specified, and accidentals are effective for the rest of the bar, as you'd expect. In addition, triplets can be used, first and second time repeats can be added and transposition (disk version only) is also possible.
Each note is considered and drawn individually so that rhythmic groupings are not marked or enforced, which means that sightreading requires a little more care than usual. Rests corresponding to all note lengths can be used at will, but for some reason dotted rests are not allowed: this is a pity and makes compound time signatures more than a little tedious. Anyway, each note can be sounded when entered, and either individual monophonic lines or the whole polyphonic shooting match can be played back and then re-edited, with insertions and deletions permissible at any point.
The Keyboard allows the music data for one channel at a time to be played into a software-implemented four-track recorder direct from the BBC's QWERTY keyboard. The function key strip contains a diagram to remind you which keys give which notes, while a two-octave music keyboard displayed on the screen (this maps onto any two octaves of a five octave range) gives a visual confirmation of each key press.
Still on the subject of the screen display, highlighted icons show the status of the recorder, while there's even a metronome onscreen that ticks audio-visually, if you get my drift. As on a multitrack tape machine, you can play back pre-recorded tracks whilst laying down a new one, and music data can be saved and later loaded up into the Editor for correction or the Printer for hard-copy production of a full score.
The Linker (disk version only) simply allows as many as 10 separate compositions to be played back in a user-defined sequence. This facilitates key changes during a piece and also allows repetition of sub-compositions.
The Printer is capable of printing out all four monophonic channel scores, on a grand stave each, with bar lines aligned if required. This is accomplished slowly (thanks to graphics mode printing) down the length of the paper, and is both neat and readable. The manual informs us that Epson FX80 and RX80 printers are supported as well as the Star Delta 10:1 used an Epson MX100 successfully, though the tails on the notes didn't quite attach to the stems properly and an extra rest appeared at the end of one of the channel outputs. A small bug somewhere, perhaps?
The Synthesiser is, quite simply, the best piece of software for controlling the BBC sound chip's facilities I've yet seen. The use of graphics, icons and windows (superb throughout TMS, as I hope the examples show) is particularly impressive in this module. Up to 15 'music envelopes' at a time can be defined, stored and used on an individual note basis in your compositions. Envelopes can be listened to as each change is made, while for those of you interested in using the sound chip's facilities in your own programs, TMS will set up and file away the BBC BASIC envelope commands corresponding to the sounds you create with the Synthesiser module. Stirring stuff.
Great care has been taken throughout The Music System to make the software as user-friendly as possible. Software is often advertised as user-friendly these days without good reason: TMS actually delivers the goods. Instead of trying to pack masses of text describing current status and sets of possible commands onto the screen, the software keeps everything clear and readable. If you need more information or wish to play with a particular set of parameters, a window pops up as and when required and then disappears again when you've finished. This means that graphic displays can take up the whole screen if necessary (which makes them easier to use) without space being lost for lists of parameters and data entry questions. Given that a picture is worth a thousand words (Ha! Ed), I can't do justice to the visual icon/window approach in the space of this review, so try to see TMS in action for yourself. You won't be disappointed.
Another contribution to the system's user-friendliness is that parameters have default values, which means you don't have to set all of them explicitly. Where a parameter has a specific set of values, you can select the value you require simply by using the cursor control keys.
In fact, the amount of typing you have to do is reduced to an absolute minimum throughout. Once you've read the manual (and I suggest you read it thoroughly, if only to be sure that you don't accidentally ignore half the facilities offered by TMS), using the package rapidly becomes intuitive.
The Music System is one of the best pieces of software - music or otherwise - I have ever used. A complex piece package offering a host of useful and well thought-out facilities has been made immediately and intuitively usable thanks to Island Logic's innovative use (on an eight-bit micro!) of default values, graphics, icons and windows.
The Sheffield-based development team involved in the production of TMS are justifiably proud of their achievements, and are apparently intent on further developing both this and other products.
Rumours of a MIDI add-on for the system are rife, and this would release budding computer musicians from the constraints of the Beeb's internal sound chip which, though it comes out rather well after comparison with the Spectrum's beep, does fall a little short of a DX7 in terms of sound quality.
If you're into making your own music and have access to a BBC Micro, The Music System will broaden your horizons both in terms of the facilities it offers and in the way it deals with the computer-user interface. Go on - treat yourself.
Disk version of The Music System retails at £24.95 including VAT, while the cassette variant carries an RRP of £12.95: two cassettes are required to complete the system. Further information from Island Logic, (Contact Details).
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Review by Jay Chapman
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